Tools of empowerment

8th November 1996 at 00:00
When Her Majesty's Inspectors recently selected a dozen schools and colleges known for good practice in information technology, Richmond Park School in Glasgow was the first special school to be chosen. For the school, which caters for children aged 5-12 with a wide range of physical handicaps, builds IT into all aspects of the curriculum, including project work and primarysecondary liaison.

Headteacher Maggie Pollard says that all 20 of her teaching staff, plus support staff, are involved in using IT with their 90 pupils and see the computer as the most powerful tool to help children overcome their handicaps.

New technologies such as multimedia and the World Wide Web have helped stimulate children with moderate and severe physical disability and a wide range of intellectual ability. Videoconferencing and the Internet have been used in everyday project class work, and children have produced their own multimedia creations with KidPix 2 and HyperStudio.

Richmond Park has its own Web site, set up last year mainly by 11-year-old pupils using PageMill. The two teachers involved were learning alongside their pupils, as is usual at the school. Children have been communicating worldwide for more than eight years, so creating a Web site was a logical extension.

Electronic mail (e-mail) has given pupils insight into modern history in the making: some of them were in contact with the Russian School for the Blind in Moscow which overlooks Red Square and was able to comment on the uprising as it happened.

The pupils also had direct exchanges with a school in East Berlin at the very time the Wall was coming down. Having had their questions translated into German by a local secondary school, they were both excited and dismayed to receive a 30-page reply in German.

Nearer to home, the liberating power of e-mail was shown vividly by the experience of Belinda, an 11-year-old pupil whose complex physical disability affected her speech as well as severely restricting her mobility. Working at a keyboard from her wheelchair, she had overcome her social isolation by exchanging news with an electronic pen pal on the other side of Glasgow.

After some time, her able-bodied pen pal was invited to visit her at the school. Both sides were astonished by their age disparity: Belinda had visualised another 11-year-old, while the primary assistant head she had been e-mailing was expecting to visit an adult: e-mail is blind to distinctions of age and status.

Since September, Richmond Park has been running videoconferencing trials with two other schools as part of Project Alligator, funded by British Telecom. The other partners are Yorkhill Hospital School and Ashcraig, the secondary school to which most of its pupils move at the age of 12.

Every Friday afternoon Richmond Park pupils have an hour-long conference with Ashcraig, with twice-weekly 45-minute sessions with Yorkhill on other days. The pupils are currently working on a multicultural, anti-racist project on the rights of the child. Pupils who can see and talk to each other via the computer screen are able to compare results and approaches on a regular basis.

* Conference: Maggie Pollard of Richmond Park School will demonstrate the use of multimedia software and the Web for children with special needs, Wednesday 10.30am

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