Web without seams

6th June 1997 at 01:00
Jack Kenny describes how one of the largest girls' schools in Europe solved its IT problems.

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 fundamental 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 comp-uters 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 admini-stration 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 3541

Mitsubishi Apricot: 0800 212422

Clifton Reed Consultants: 01932 231433

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