System failure

2nd January 2004 at 00:00
Confessions of an IT co-ordinator

Every morning at our primary school the younger children line up to get a piece of fresh fruit. As it happens every day, people have stopped noticing. When the scheme was launched, there were headlines and ministerial fanfares. But now it's part of the routine and people have forgotten what an innovation it seemed. Recently, I've heard grumblings in the staffroom about the hassle, and how teachers are meant to be running a school, not a greengrocer's. My colleague, Susan Chard, says that by the time we've fed the children and showed them how to work the zips on their coats, it's more like adopting them than teaching them.

But I'm an optimist. Although the long-term impact of such huge and slow-working projects is hard to predict, and they are more difficult to sell than quick-fix gimmicks, it is these systematic and undramatic changes that can yield the biggest results. Fast-forward 40 years or so and that daily piece of fruit might be saving lives (not to mention saving a fortune for the NHS).

I was thinking about this the other day when the headteacher, Mrs Gatsby, came into the staffroom for small talk, while the surveyors from one of the private finance bidders were measuring up her office. After a little conversational foreplay about the weather and which parent drove the most ridiculous off-road vehicle, she began one of those "young people today, what a disgrace" monologues.

There were two sources for this. First, a report from inspectors on how children were starting school unable to speak properly, with one of the chief suspects for the creation of these zombies being the long hours spent in front of television and computer screens. Second was a report in the Daily Mule, which showed that today's infants are dysfunctional brats who spend hours at a time "playing on the computer".

This last point was thrown at me, as though, as the ICT co-ordinator in our primary school, I was personally responsible for the parenting skills of the nation. If you have anything to do with computers, you'll recognise that kind of accusation - it's rather like when someone tells you they can't open their email at home in an irritated way that suggests they think you're secretly somehow to blame.

"That's right," added Sarah Sykes, the Year 3 teacher who sees all machines as her enemy. "I've seen the reception class tapping away." There was a mutter of approval in the staffroom, as though the sight of four-year-olds typing was the final proof of a sinister global digital conspiracy.

That brought me back to the daily fruit. We've stopped realising how significant it is that children starting school can be as comfortable using a keyboard as a pencil. If we did notice, we'd be even less sure about how we should respond.

Our four and five-year-olds are producing complicated pieces of art using the software on our iMacs. When I was getting computer training a few years back, there were teachers who needed a tutorial before they could operate the on-off switch.

Who taught these four-year-olds to use a keyboard? There used to be correspondence courses in this kind of thing, with paper keyboard templates to practise on at the kitchen table. Now these children teach themselves, because it seems compelling enough to demand their attention.

I've heard from the staff up the road at St Cuthbert's-by-Volvo that some of their top class were given laptops this Christmas. These children are going to have equipment that would once have been reserved for adults flying business class.

Children might watch a lot of television, but then again, compared to my childhood, there's a lot more television to watch. Take a look at a four-year-old operating the remote controls for the cable channels, the DVD and the video recorder. They don't even have to think about the technology, it's an instinctive awareness of getting where they want to be.

When we're talking about children who are younger than Windows 98, phrases such as "new technology" seem ridiculously quaint. And when we're so busy looking for the new and extraordinary, it's easy to miss the scale of changes that are taking places at those ankle-level desks in the infants.

seanjames999@hotmail.com

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