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Uplifting focus on fun keeps exam results high

SPAIN

"Here it is," the message says. A poem, in the shape of a multi-coloured oak tree, appears on the screen and teacher Juan Jose Madrid's face lights up. Antonio, 10, has just returned his Spanish reading homework - as he does regularly - by email.

Juan sends an immediate reply, but never a correction, because his job is only to encourage the children. Juan is one of three teachers on-line every weekday evening. He will feed back errors to children's literature teachers, who then modify their teaching. The online reading-related tasks are voluntary but 70 per cent of children do them. "The children see it as a game," says Juan, "the project works because of their enthusiasm."

The programme is one of a range of cutting-edge multimedia projects offered to children at the private Liceo-Europeo school for 1,100 three to 18-year-olds in Madrid, where fees start at E4,250 (pound;3,000) per year.

It is a school whose liberal "free teaching" ideology, co-operative working methods and creative use of technology has won it a string of international awards for educational innovation.

Liceo-Europeo takes its "happy learning" approach so seriously that a new teacher has to undergo three months' in-house training in active-learning methods before they are given a class.

The philosophy seems to pay off. Liceo-Europeo leavers achieve an average grade of 7.55 out of 10, well above the 5.5 average score of university entrants nationally. "We don't believe in conventional exams," says the schools owner and head Arsenio Inclan,"but we teach the children how to pass them."

From the age of three, children are using the internet every day to investigate, for example, fruits or animals. They learn English from the same age by a method that involves them drawing whatever phrase their teacher writes on the board. Children grow up both bilingual and able to produce impressive artwork that they later use in creating presentations.

The approach has won them both a prestigious award from the EU for language learning and a prize from the Institute of Architects.

In one of the computer rooms Juan and Maria, both nine, flick back and forth between a "newspaper page" and photos of the film director Pedro Almodovar they are pasting into it from the Internet.

"They are like fish in the water with these programmes," says Antonio del Pozo, "the technology is very motivating."

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