A window on the future

Valerie Hall reports on Southwark's efforts to get its primary schools into the IT age.

Southwark is just a stone's throw across the Thames from high-rise, high-tech Docklands, yet few of its school leavers get jobs there. Lacking up-to-date computer equipment and teachers adequately trained in its use, the borough's primary schools have been unable to provide pupils with the requisite skills to compete in tomorrow's job market. But all that is changing.

To enhance the IT skills of its 17,000 primary pupils beyond national curriculum requirements, and to bring the number of pupils per computer down to eight, Southwark has invested nearly Pounds 500,000 in new PCs - Pentium and Multimedia Window Boxes from Research Machines.

Paul Morgan, Southwark's inspector for IT, says: "Research Machines came up with the best package to fit our specifications and we will be able to purchase further machines at knock-down prices. But we didn't want just to give schools the equipment. Hand in hand with it go people's training requirements, so each school has agreed to send an IT co-ordinator on a borough-run five-day training programme. These co-ordinators will then develop a school training policy. "

Most of Southwark's 67 primary schools were keen to participate. Their financial stake was 25 per cent of equipment costs and three days' course fees. The local authority pays the other two and Research Machines provides vouchers for discounted training.

The man charged with training the IT co-ordinators, in groups of eight, is IT adviser Jamie McLaren, based at the Science Centre, Camberwell. He has completed the first two days' training, covering the use and management of the Window Boxes, the role of co-ordinator, available software programs and the demands of the national curriculum. The other three days will be used to examine IT policies, development plans, work schemes for IT, links with other subjects and the recording and assessment of children's progress in IT.

"In all this, we give them scope to develop their own skills using demonstration, hands-on and discussion, so their confidence grows and they can be effective co-ordinators, able to run in-service training for their colleagues," says Mr McLaren.

Among other services are monthly drop-in sessions for anyone who wants to ask questions and try things out plus a database of CD-Roms indicating the age groups for which they are appropriate.

A visit to St James School reveals two or three computers constantly in use in each classroom. Keith Taylor, the deputy head and IT co-ordinator, says: "We had already earmarked an amount in our budget for a new multimedia computer to supplement the one we already had. But with this project we had enough, for only Pounds 200 to Pounds 300 more, to buy four RM Window Boxes - two infant and two junior - and two colour printers. We now have 13 computers and four printers rotating between seven classes, so each of our 210 pupils can use them for a high proportion of time."

He has put his two days training to good use by introducing staff to a range of software, such as RM's First Word for Windows. This is a child-friendly version of Microsoft's word-processing package. He supplements these with a booklet clearly summarising such basics as using a CD-Rom and mixing pictures and writing. It also lists the school's CD-Roms, including the six junior and six infant CD-Roms that come with the Window Boxes.

"Staff wishing to familiarise themselves with a certain package can then practise in their own way without someone looking over their shoulder, and can come to me if they have any problems," he says.

Music co-ordinator Susan Taylor soon got to grips with the music notation program. Today, Sophie and Sarah are working at composing a four-bar tune, while the rest of Susan's class of nine and ten-year- olds get on with something else. Using the mouse, the girls place short and long red blobs on the bar, select musical instruments and play the music back, trying out several combinations. When everyone has had a go, the class will choose its favourites to play with conventional instruments.

In the reception class, a four-year-old girl "dressing the bear" with the My World program giggles: "Oops, I forgot his socks." Her control of the mouse is admirable. Teacher Heather Woodward says: "Most of them have done Animated Alphabet at nursery school so they come in with a good basis. I get each child to teach the next how to use the keyboard, control the mouse, press the buttons and load the program."

According to Mr Morgan, Southwark intends to monitor and audit schools regularly. Meanwhile, the borough has gone a long way towards ensuring its pupils get the best possible IT, numeracy and literacy training from the earliest age.

Jamie McLaren, 0171 701 2224; e-mail: jamiemcl@rm.plc.co.uk

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