How new technology transformed failing school

Richard Garner visits Essa Academy in Bolton – the cutting edge of an education revolution

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The Independent Online

Today, Bolton – tomorrow, the world. Ask anyone in the education world which is the most technologically advanced state school in the country, and their answer is the same: Bolton's Essa Academy, which has undergone a technological revolution envied by schools across the country.

On the face of it, many might consider the Lancashire town an unlikely spot to herald one of the biggest revolutions in learning the state education system has seen in decades.

Essa is a 900-pupil, 11-to-16 school, taking most of its pupils from the most disadvantaged communities in the town. Its predecessor was failed by Ofsted, but it is now flourishing as a result of a remarkable shake-up in the way pupils are learning. Every pupil has their own iPod Touch, which they keep with them day and night. The gadget helps them to do their homework and gives them the opportunity to email their teachers with questions whenever they like. While some tutors set aside a specific time slot to answer pupils' queries, others will fire an answer back within 10 or 15 minutes.

Teachers have their own iPads on which they can create mini-textbooks for their subjects, which it is hoped will save the school money in the short term and eventually become a resource for others. Institutions from the UK and overseas are flocking to Essa's door to see if they can learn from its experience. Even some of the country's independent schools have paid a visit, acknowledging that they are falling behind technologically.

The gadget revolution is all down to Abdul Chohan, a chemistry teacher at the school's former failing predecessor. He is now one of four directors – in old parlance, deputy heads – at Essa.

Mr Chohan, who had experience with Glaxo Pharmaceuticals as a researcher before turning to teaching, is convinced that his pupils will need 21st-century skills when they set out to find work. He also believes that too much attention is focused on exams rather than developing life skills.

He is particularly scathing about the way some schools have introduced new technology. "Thousands of pounds has been spent in schools and really used unwisely," he says. "Teachers are really good at doing the wrong things well. For instance, they used to have a blackboard and now they have an interactive whiteboard – but they still stand in front of the class pointing to it as if it was their old blackboard."

Pupils at the school are understandably enthusiastic about their new way of learning, but 12-year-old Maia Delaney, who has been there for six months, admitted she found it "really a bit scary" when she first arrived in September. "I didn't know a lot about technology," she says. "I didn't want to look stupid in front of people I didn't know."

She adds: "I soon discovered some of my friends were terrified as well. We helped each other out and helped the teachers out sometimes, too. We take it [the iPod Touch] home with us and we do our work and research at home in the evening."

The fact that pupils can be continually in touch with their teachers is a crucial advantage of the new system, Mr Chohan says. "If there's something they want to know why should they have to wait until the school gates open at 9am in the morning?" he points out.

The school may believe that an over-emphasis on exams is wrong, but there is no denying that the new method of learning has acted as a catalyst in improving results. Last year every pupil achieved five A*-to C grade passes at GCSE, compared with 40 per cent previously.

The proof of Essa's success is in the way it is attracting parents who shied away from the former comprehensive. Ironically, the school's principal, Showk Badat, can empathise with them – he was born and brought up in Bolton and his parents refused to send him to the school because of its poor reputation.

He was happily working as the head of another academy in Nottingham when he saw an advert for the job of principal at Bolton's first academy on the site of the school his parents would not allow him to attend. "It seemed like fate," he says, "that I could put something back into the community where I grew up."