Thank goodness! No more of those long afternoons spent cutting out shapes with scissors," sighed one infant teacher. She was speaking from the heart when she first glimpsed the Ellison Letter Machine. Her relief is justified because this new American import certainly puts a great deal of paper power at any primary teacher's elbow.
At a turn of a lever, it can churn out letters of the alphabet, bookmarks, cards and shapes of every kind - in fact, a whole variety of items of potential use in lessons, on classroom walls or as novelty fundraisers for a school fair. As well as paper and card, the machine transforms felt, vinyl and other classroom-friendly materials with a vengeance.
Operation is simple. Just slide in your material along with one of the interchangeable dies, turn a lever and out comes a perfectly finished shape - or set of shapes - every time. Since it can take up to five layers of card at a time, materials for a complete class can be prepared in minutes.
The teachers I recruited for an informal demonstration were enthusiastic about the possibilities, especially for geometric shapes, games and jigsaws, display items, packaging and basic shapes for story books. However, they were quick to point out the need to use the machine as a time-saver and a source of basic shapes that could be further developed and customised, rather than let it replace scissor skills and other techniques. They also stressed the need to take the machine into account at the planning stage so that it could produce materials related to the term's work.
Not surprisingly, the teachers' doubts centred on the price. Although the machine itself costs Pounds 395 (or Pounds 325 for a smaller version), you'd need to budget for Pounds 1,000 in total to include a full alphabet and a dozen or so shapes to get started, with further dies costing an average of Pounds 25. Arguments for a long-term purchase include very low maintenance costs and a working life that lasts many years.
For a well-funded parent-teachers' association, the purchase might not look so daunting if the machine could also be made to pay its way on the fundraising front - perhaps in the hands of an energetic volunteer with the imagination to exploit its potential. The snap reaction from our impressed PTA member was that it looked a very good bet for producing attractive small items for a novelty stall.
Comparisons with America are always confusing but educational resource specialists SLP - the UK distributors - report that the manufacturing company has a 19-year record of success, with some schools using as many as four machines.
In this country, perceptions of the machine are likely to depend on your situation. A well-endowed school in an affluent area with a go-ahead PTA might well see it as more useful than, say, yet another computer. But where even basic educational resources are limited, it would appear to be a definite luxury. As one inner-city teacher observed: "In our school it would be like talking about buying a dishwasher when you're still struggling to afford cups and saucers."
A seven-minute demonstration video is available on 28 days' approval. For further information, contact SLP, 23 West View, Chirk, Clwyd LL14 5HL. Tel: 01691 774778