Success breeds willing learners;Teaching support;Education

15th May 1998 at 01:00
On Tyneside, a group of schools has found a way to motivate struggling pupils, says Jon O'Connor

WE USED to think of himself as slipping towards total failure. But Mark, in Year 7, remembers how he was radically remotivated. "Me dad: he said if I did what me brother did - like mess up at school - he'd punch me lights out." The other factor in his rejuvenation was SuccessMaker software. "I used to struggle, but it's made me real good and I'm more confident now," he says.

All the pupils I talked to at a group of pilot schools in North Tyneside remembered the day they scored 100 per cent with SuccessMaker, wiping out painful memories of their worst scores.

The Seaton Burn pyramid - a high school and four primaries - submitted a bid to the local authority for funding SuccessMaker, an integrated learning system (ILS). Local headteachers then handed the scheme's management over to the teachers.

The authority provided pound;30,000 and support: 10 standalone systems were bought, all bar one installed in the primary schools as a commitment to getting pupils involved as early as possible.

RM, the company that markets and supports SuccessMaker, believes in its potential - it is already installed in one in six secondary schools in England and Wales. The software has much in common with the Government's agenda for school improvement: the identification and systematic development of core skills as a foundation or as a remedial task for teachers and learners.

The software is designed to set children tasks, analyse their success, and set further tasks according to their ability. It combines assessment and learning tailored to individual needs, and consists of a central management system and a library of 26 courses providing thousands of hours of work to support literacy, numeracy, science and life skills.

Students are fed a diet of apparently random tasks in a subject. Individual work is matched to competencies on a vast conceptual database, and progress reports are generated for teachers. Experience suggests that it deserves to be taken seriously, that it can and does raise achievement.

Despite its sophistication, both management system and coursework are easy to use, even for computer-phobics. The teachers' role is to develop understanding, and determine initial levels and dosage, while SuccessMaker serves as a curriculum manager's assistant. Data print-outs help to identify imbalances in the curriculum as it is taught. It's a partnership of teaching and technology: teachers focus on developing the teaching while SuccessMaker providesevidence, analysis and practice.

But if you're after cheap solutions, look elsewhere. SuccessMaker - it costs pound;3,000 for a system - will only work with careful planning and effective teaching. It requires focused training, clear methodology and hard work.

Tyneside has seen its fair share of ups and downs. Most of the pit jobs have gone. The local heroes are Nissan and Alan Shearer, emblems of innovation and hard graft.

The Seaton Burn success combined the innovation of SuccessMaker and the hard graft of special needs co-ordinator Ann Burn and her four primary project colleagues. Aiming to raise standards from Year 3 to 9 takes collaboration and commitment. Staff stayed late, sacrificed holiday time to set up data and make the system work. Their pilot Year 6 pupils were under-achieving in maths by up to 15 per cent from national norms. Student commitment, attitudes and attainment were generally unexceptional.

ibling and peer-group pressure can make it uncool to like school. Primary schools provide consistency and security for some pupils, consistent recognition of failure for others. Equally, the secondary system creates a crisis of confidence and a hiatus in learning for many. One way or another, a proportion of students experience years of humiliating under-achievement.

But the results of using SuccessMaker mathematics speak for themselves. Over a 13-week period, 70 per cent of the pupils gained at least six months in performance on standardised testing.

The new crop of Year 6 students in the Seaton pyramid were highly motivated by SuccessMaker's on-screen rewards and instant feedback. On-screen tools, such as the virtual ruler, calculator, notepad, hints and clues buttons, offer a number of strategies to avoid defeat. Spoken text supports students working at the lower levels, limiting the impact of language deficiencies on mathematical development. In short, SuccessMaker reduces the odds of sustained failure in maths by making success attainable.

But you can overdo SuccessMaker. Staff reckon limited seasons of daily 15-minute sessions (say, a term) work best. Technical back-up has sometimes been slow and RM is honest enough to recognise this needed addressing.

The Seaton pyramid teachers are pragmatic but positive about their partnership with the people and the technology. Their evaluation report concludes: "It is clear that SuccessMaker, when used in a structured and carefully monitored situation, can greatly enhance but never replace the work of a classroom teacher."

RM Learning Systems 01235 826700 Longman is joining the ILS market.

The July 10 issue of Online Education will review its new system, Tomorrow's Promise. Longman 01223 425558

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