Fuelled by his aversion to EastEnders, Duncan Wilson was driven to writing his own simulation software for student investigations. When he produced a whodunnit, his pupils were inspired. Arnold Evans reports
Ask 14-year-old Samantha Stone about ICT lessons at Ysgol Bro Gwaun in Fishguard, Pembrokeshire, and she'll want to tell you about a murder investigation she conducted. She used the computer to create a photofit of suspects, sketch the scene of crime, collate eye-witness reports and produce an appeal for the TV news. Surprisingly, she has also knocked up a spreadsheet to keep tabs on the cost of the investigation - something Morse never seemed to get around to doing.
When not pursuing serial killers, she has been running an iffy second-hand car lot, mounting a marketing campaign for Lord of the Rings and helping a dysfunctional family from a galaxy far away to settle on Earth (don't ask).
These simulations - which are both great fun and a great way of getting pupils to practise computer skills - were created by the school's head of ICT, Duncan Wilson. He claims that it's a labour of love, but, as anyone who has ever tried to create a bug-free, Year 9-proof simulation knows, it's also hard labour. But Duncan isn't having any of that.
"The thing is, my wife loves EastEnders and I hate it," he says. "So when she's watching it, I pass the time programming stuff for school on my laptop". That's great for Samantha and her chums, who can benefit from the software and enjoy the luxury of telling a teacher when he's getting things wrong.
"Students soon let you know what doesn't work or what's boring," he says.
"When they do, you can tweak it or write something new or try a different approach. You just can't do that with commercial software that you've bought, however brilliant it is."
It's not the only reason Duncan has for excusing himself from the latest goings-on in Albert Square. "Commercial software dictates the way you have to teach - you have to fit your lessons around the software," he says.
"When you write your own, you can decide what you want to teach and how to teach it."
There's another incalculable educational bonus in having a teacher who writes his own courseware. It reminds children that they can be something more than passive consumers of new technologies. See it from their point of view: if Sir can create his own stuff on the computer, why can't we?
To gain the confidence to produce their own software, they first have to master the basics - which is why Duncan has them flogging dodgy motors and finding out whodunit. The various tasks in these simulations are carefully differentiated but it's up to pupils to decide which activities to do - to test their own progress, to use the online help - and nag Sir to explain anything they still don't get. "They're very responsible. They try to get as much as they can out of the ICT lessons because they know how important it is," he says.
ICT could prove a godsend in Pembrokeshire, still reeling from the collapse of the rural economy and growing too dependent on tourism and the giro. A computer-literate workforce offers the best hope of attracting inward investment.
But ICT, and the internet in particular, does more than that. It levels the playing field, providing pupils in remote areas with the same ability to access the best learning materials as those enjoyed by their peers in the big cities.
"It's very important to us," says headteacher Christine Wright, "to keep reminding our pupils that they are as good as any children in the world.
The school must be one place where they should feel that they can achieve anything when they put their minds to it. ICT is an important means of doing that." There isn't a classroom in Ysgol Bro Gwaun that doesn't reflect that commitment. All the staff have been equipped with a laptop and every teaching space, except for one workshop, has an interactive whiteboard. Most of these are coupled to DVD players - and the science rooms have surround sound, which probably puts the local fleapit to shame.
Having the hardware in place is no good without staff who genuinely want to integrate it into their teaching.
The teachers seem every bit as determined as Duncan's amateur sleuths and dodgy car dealers to make the most of new technology. They have been helped by twilight in-service training sessions, a CD-Rom full of hints and FAQs (home-made, of course) and by Duncan's unrelenting enthusiasm - a characteristic that seems to be unique to ICT co-ordinators, parliamentary candidates and radio DJs.
And like any good ICT co-ordinator, his goal is to make himself surplus to requirements. "It's not for me to tell staff how they should use computers," he says. "Once they know what computers are capable of doing, they decide for themselves how best to use them in their teaching. ICT, like other aspects of the school, is very much a team effort. We all share ideas and expertise."
This collective enthusiasm helps to explain why over 50 per cent of the intake opt for ICT as one of their GCSE subjects and a remarkable 97 per cent of those who do obtain an A* to C grade. Pupils at Ysgol Bro Gwaun should be grateful that EastEnders is on quite as often as it is.
Ysgol Bro Gwaun, Fishguard High School, Heol Dyfed, Fishguard SA65 9DT pgfl.org.ukfolder4
* Define educational aims carefully before you start.
* Keep things simple.
* See it from the pupils' perspective. What will appeal to them? There are gender differences - cater for the boys andthe girls.
* Differentiate tasks.
* Enable pupils to assess their own progress.
* Involve pupils throughout the development process - it increases their sense of ownership
* Familiarise yourself with the software. You can do a lot with Paint and PowerPoint, even more with Photoshop, Flash and Dreamweaver