System failure

23rd June 2006 at 01:00
I've always thought there was something bitter sweet about the school summer term. Outside, in the natural world, everything is in full bloom, a high-contrast, widescreen extravaganza. Close your eyes and you can almost hear things growing.

But in the classroom, another year is finishing. It's a kind of internal autumn, as the term heads deeper into the summer, lessons are wound down, we begin to gather up the loose strands of the year.

Children are given artwork to take home from the beginning of the year. It seems so long ago now and the coloured paper is curling like dried leaves.

I was just about to ponder such melancholy thoughts when the door crashed open. It was Mrs Gatsby in Paxman mode.

"What's this about the school being put into an end-of-term sale?" I didn't even have time to plead ignorance.

"For only 50 pence?"

I still didn't have time to interrupt.

"Or perhaps even less if there isn't a better offer before the summer fair."

Mrs Gatsby waved a print-out in the air as if it were an explanation in itself.

"And they even printed the school phone number. I've told Yvonne that if anyone calls, she is to remind them firmly that I am not for sale."

It turned out that one of the more enterprising top-class pupils had opened an account with ed-Bay, the educational online marketplace.

"It's just a prank, you know what they're like." The Year 6 pupils all thought they were more or less teenagers and wanted to show us how independent they were.

The next time we'd see them would be in the shopping centre, wearing the uniforms of their new secondary schools, when they'd pretend not to see us, as though we'd embarrass them with stories about how they cried on their first day.

Mind you, it wasn't entirely unreasonable for Mrs Gatsby to fear the worst, as last year something broadly similar was being considered by the local authority. Except that was called a private finance initiative deal and was put together by a team of overpaid consultants, rather than overactive 11-year-olds.

But it got me thinking about how much had changed since these children arrived at the school. And how remarkably technology literate 11-year-olds have become in such a short space of time.

When these children arrived in the reception class, it was back in the last century. Most people didn't even have mobile phones then. These days, leaving home without the mobile feels like leaving half-dressed, but back then they still had novelty value. An 11-year-old now would find it hard to imagine a world without ringtones and text messages.

Back then, we were still using noisy modems to connect to the internet - and broadband was a distant dream. What's more, can you imagine how much we would have wanted one of those natty little key-ring memory sticks rather than boxes of floppy discs?

If you watch an 11-year-old moving between different software packages, for music, art, photography and writing, they're more confident and proficient than the trainers from a few years ago.

These are children who can't remember before iPods, iTunes and MP3 players.

They're as comfortable with these ways of handling music as we were with record players and cassette recorders. It's an achievement for which no one is ever likely to thank schools, but if you look at these youngsters, they have ICT skills that must have surpassed any reasonable expectation when they began school seven years ago.

They're so assured about using computers that they don't even know they're using a computer, any more than they worry about the technology of the DVD they are watching. Oh, and that's another thing we didn't know much about when these children were making the step up from nursery.

They've got Google Earth now (add Google to the newcomers' list, too) and it's a remarkable facility, showing close-up satellite images from all over the planet. The Year 6 children were using it to show each other their new schools for the autumn.

Watching them swoop down from above the planet, plunging through the clouds, then down to the grid of streets and to the school buildings where their future lay next, I couldn't help but feel a modest sense of achievement.

It seems such a short step since these kids were starting school. And even if they don't put a high price on their education yet, at least these youngsters know where they're going.

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