Web without seams

6th June 1997 at 01:00
Swanshurst School in Birmingham is unusual. With more than 1,600 students, it + is one of the largest girls' schools in Europe - but that is not what makes it + remarkable. What does, is that a great many staff use IT productively. With + figures showing that only 30 per cent of secondary teachers make regular use of+ IT, a school that breaks out of that cycle is worth investigating.Swanshurst + is not particularly innovative. Innovative schools usually have expertise + intensively concentrated in one area, whereas this school has begun to scatter + IT impressively right across the curriculum. And they didn't go to a + traditional school computer supplier, such as Xemplar or RM.The IT problems of + a school of this size are vast. A fundamenta l one was highlighted by its + Office for Standards in Education report in 1995: they did not have enough + computers. Another was the site: there are three major buildings which were, at+ one time, three separate schools. So communication is an obvious + headache.Headteacher Margaret Threadgold thinks IT should accelerate learning. + She hurried the development along by setting up a team of three: Andy Thomas + (deputy head with a responsibility for computers), Eddie Doherty (IT manager) + and Cath Powell (IT co-ordinator). Obviously, with a school of this size, + budgeting and allowances are rather different from smaller schools but what + Swanshurst has done can be replicated elsewhere.Very little of the IT training + takes place out of the school. And Cath Powell is adamant about that. "We work+ with teachers on the machines and in the rooms and with the software that they+ will use. I find if you can give them something simple and achievable, say + like putting figures into the cells of a spreadsheet, they will soon be asking + how to do graphs. Small steps, over time, achieve a great deal. On an external+ course the tutors will try to give them everything about spreadsheets and + teachers return feeling overwhelmed. We now have a number of departments where + every teacher feels at ease with IT."Andy Thomas likes to use the analogy of + driving instruction."At first, people need very close supervision. That is + tailed off as confidence grows until they drive on their own and would resent + interference."Cath Powell has been at the school about two years. One of her + first acts was to ask departments to be involved in initiatives. Cath has + worked intensively with teachers to develop approaches and strategies. "I think+ it is important to work with departments rather than rely on the enthusiasm of+ individuals," she says. The approach seems to have paid off. The modern + languages work is far beyond the "fun with texts" type of approach. Geography + has been particularly enterprising. Martin Sutton, a teacher in that + department, is not talking about building an "intranet" (a sort of in-school + Internet) - he has done it, and it's called Geognet. "Any student can go to a + computer anywhere on the site and get into Volcano World or can find + first-class material on earthquakes and weather. It is all from the Internet + but stored on the school's network. It works faster than a CD-Rom and much of + it is current information. "You can see for yourself how intranets with a + mixture of in-house and downloaded material will prove to be a learning tool of+ immense significance. "None of this could have been achieved without a good PC+ network. Staff in the past had been frustrated by a network that was slow, + restrictive and could not cope with 30 girls suddenly demanding access at one + moment. There were times when it could take from 10 to 15 minutes to get + started. Andy Thomas knew what he wanted: "Fast access - we wanted to run + CD-Roms across it; we wanted to cover this vast site; we wanted to use e-mail + internally and externally. "Above all, we did not want to use floppy discs; we + wanted any child to be able to access her work on any station in any part of + the school. We told various companies what we wanted and Mitsubishi and their + resellers, Clifton Reed, came up with the answers. So now we have a Novell + network and we can run all our computers on it, not just the Apricots. It is + what we wanted - an open system, not restricted to any one company."Perhaps the+ most influential individual is the IT manager Eddie Doherty. When first + introduced, I assumed he was a deputy head. In some schools he would be called + a technician. Eddie does not wander around in overalls looking for screws to + tighten. He wears a smart suit and most of the students make the assumption + that I did. Eddie is not a teacher but the school is enlightened enough to + treat him as an important member of staff.Eddie has worked with computers in + schools for a decade or so. At Swanshurst he is in the classroom, supporting + and ensuring that everything goes smoothly. The days he looks forward to are + when a teacher who previously could not manage without his presence tells him, + very politely, that his services are no longer required. If IT is going to + pervade the curriculum and administration in schools, every secondary school is+ going to need an Eddie Doherty with real status, professionalism and an + adequate salary.The school is still moving ahead. Andy Thomas will be looking + for more machines. "Our next move is to bring the administration side and the + curriculum side closer together. "Often a computer company will tell you what + they can do and you have to live with that. We tell them what we want to do and+ ask them to do it."Swanshurst School: 0121 443 3541Mitsubishi Apricot: 0800 + 212422Clifton Reed Consultants: 01932 231433

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