"The key stage 3 ICT Strategy arrived at exactly the right time," says Clare Montgomery, curriculum area leader for ICT at Montgomery High School in Blackpool. A former maths teacher, Clare Montgomery assumed her post just as the strategy was making its debut. She says: "I welcomed it very much, as we had no real scheme in place and there wasn't much structure in KS3."
Launched in September 2002, the ICT strand of the KS3 national strategy is aimed at raising standards in the teaching and learning of ICT. It provides a programme of professional development and support to help promote high expectations of pupils, a challenging and engaging approach to the subject and a clear progression path. The aim is for KS3 students to become more discerning users of ICT, not only learning how to use new technology, but also judging when and how it should be applied.
Support and training for schools is being provided by a KS3 ICT consultant in each local authority. A national package of resources includes the strategy framework, which sets out teaching objectives for ICT in Years 7, 8 and 9. There is also a set of sample teaching units, with structured lessons that incorporate starters, hands-on activities and plenary sessions.
The recommendation is that pupils have one hour of discrete ICT teaching every week, throughout the key stage. However, nothing in the strategy is compulsory, and schools and LEAs have opted for a variety of approaches to making it work.
Clare Montgomery and her colleagues have used almost all of the sample units in ICT lessons, making only minor adjustments. "The children love it," she says. "The hour-long sessions really challenge them and they never get bored."
Clare Montgomery believes that standards have risen. "The children's knowledge and understanding has definitely improved, and now we have guidance on what they have to achieve to attain a certain level. Before the strategy, I believe teacher assessment levels often didn't have much basis in fact. However, I would like to see a lot more exemplar material - we need examples of what constitutes a Level 4 or 5 for every piece of work.
My other criticism is that some of the scenarios are a bit dull. One of the Year 8 teaching units focuses on a garden centre. Blackpool schools replaced it with a unit created by Manchester LEA, which features a pop group."
In the London borough of Richmond, all 10 schools have been working with the strategy since its launch. Deesh Grewal, KS3 ICT consultant for Richmond LEA, says: "It started well, but then you get into the nitty-gritty of trying to change classroom practice, and that doesn't come easily.
"The challenge is to try to get away from activity-based learning, and focus on learning objectives. Rather than concentrating on whether pupils can do a mail merge (creating a single letter and then merging it with customer information so that multiple letters are created, each customised to a particular individual), you focus much more on their understanding of applying it in the real world, and issues such as how it influences individuals and affects the way business is carried out.
"The strategy provides all the resources to teach Years 7, 8 and 9 - unlike maths or English teachers, ICT teachers don't have to worry about creating their own material. But it has been difficult for them to see the link between the objectives, the teaching and the assessment. The best way through this has been through dialogue. People used to grapple with the fact that there should be more to ICT than just teaching software techniques, but there has been no way for them to articulate that until now. All our heads of ICT now meet as a group - which they didn't before - and the strategy has given them common ground and a shared language for their discussions."
Deesh Grewal is currently working on initiatives to help teachers identify and build upon pupils' primary school experience with ICT. There will be a digital video competition for Year 6 and 7 pupils, and other projects which bring together teachers from secondaries and their main feeder schools.
Grewal says: "A lot of evidence shows that the most valuable element in transition projects is the discussion between secondary and primary teachers, rather than what is produced at the end of the project."
John Owen is head of KS3 ICT at Brownhills Community Technology College in Walsall, and lead ICT teacher for Walsall. He says: "The strategy is encouraging more transferable skills and thinking on the part of our students, and they are responding well. Our levels of achievement are rising.
"The strategy materials are better than anything that was available before.
But you don't have to teach all the suggested units to cover everything - you can select what is appropriate, and adapt material to your needs.
"The main thing to remember is that this is work in progress - the longer it goes on, the more effective the strategy will be, because the skills will be built in as pupils move up through Years 8-9."
At The Netherhall School in Cambridge, several departments have joined forces to implement the strategy, which began with Year 7 in September.
Alastair Wells, head of ICT, says: "We are covering all the topics, but we have contracted other departments to teach some of the ICT, matching it to their schemes of work. In Year 7 we are working with the art, English, maths, science and technology departments. We also have specialist ICT teachers teaching certain components of the course, because their skills are needed to keep a good flow through the lesson. We have had huge, positive feedback from pupils and staff."
Alastair Wells worked closely with colleagues in other departments to develop a course of 36 hour-long teaching units, which is published on the school's website. He says: "We have remained very focused on our ICT, and kept the lesson format of starter activity, discussion, hands-on and plenary sessions. I would have loved to have used standard materials, but in order to persuade other departments to take on teaching, I had to meet their exact requirements. Areas such as Bitmaps and Vectors, for example, are being taught by the art department through geometric pattern design - a task that used to be done on paper. Now pupils begin by creating bit-mapped Roman mosaics and finish by animating geometric patterns. The department is thrilled, and pupils love it."
Alastair Wells confesses that the orchestration of staff and rooms has been complex, and will become more challenging when Years 8 and 9 are also involved. "We have 1,500 pupils, and run six network rooms, each with 35 computers. Two rooms are almost wholly devoted to the strategy." Specialist team-teaching support has been offered to any teacher who wants to build confidence in delivering lessons.
Alastair Wells says: "Now my only worry is: what do we offer pupils when they get to Year 10? The challenge is for the exam boards to be creative in what they offer at KS4. That could make for an exciting future, but it has to be considered now."
"What makes the strategy most powerful is that it is non-statutory," says Clare Johnson, ICT strand director (see right). "The schools that have really moved on are those which have used the strategy as a catalyst to help assess where they are, and discuss where they want to go and how they get there. That dialogue is the most important factor."
The framework and teaching units were refined and trialled during two pilots, beginning in 2001 and involving schools in 16 local authorities.
Clare Johnson says: "The first reaction was: this is terribly difficult - my pupils won't cope. But both pilots clearly demonstrated that they could cope."
One current focus is on providing more help with formative assessment.
A new online assessment test for KS3 ICT is being developed by the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority, and is to be piloted in summer 2005. Clare Johnson says: "Questions will be problem-led, and marked by a computer. I believe it will be one of the most exciting developments we have seen.