Education+: Net gain for a Bristol housing estate

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The Independent Online
Whitehouse Primary School serves one of the poorest housing estates in Bristol. The run-up to the school is depressing, with endless vistas of concrete and graffiti-scrawled walls. You drive into a car park surrounded by a high, mesh fence and you are warned not to leave anything valuable in the car.

But walk up a short flight of stairs, and you enter a completely different world. The information technology room contains 23 of the most advanced computer systems in the world.

The school is part of the Beon project, which means that children can access the world via the Internet. They can use e-mail or a video-conferencing link, which puts them in visual touch with anyone they want to interview. Children who were once hesitant learners now arrive an hour early for school and have to be encouraged to go home at 5pm.

Anthony Austin, the school's headteacher, says: "The impact of the project here has been huge. The biggest change has been in the children's attitude and willingness to work. We've seen a dramatic increase in the quality of what they're doing, and they spend far more time now on tasks."

As well as the technology room, each classroom also has a computer linked not only to every other one in the school but to all the other schools taking part in the project. They have colour printers, wide-band telecommunications links, video-conferencing and CD-Roms.

The children delight in it all. "Using the Internet is great because you can get pictures and loads of information. It makes lessons more fun because you're not just being taught all the time - you have to go off on your own and find out stuff," enthuses 11-year-old Hayley Collins.

Jason Blackmore, 11, says it's helped him make his work look neater. He says: "Now when you come across a word you don't know you can look it up in the thesaurus, and you can correct your spelling. It doesn't matter what your handwriting's like, either."

While I was there the children were doing a project on the weather. Access to the Internet meant they could see and hear the effects of a hurricane, and get information about different hemispheres almost instantaneously. They had divided themselves up into groups, and while one was making notes, the others were clicking through pages on the Internet. Another was looking for illustrations they could download. All were rapt with concentration, and the only sounds in the room were the murmur of voices as they discussed what they were finding, and the hum of the computers.

Ten-year-old Ryan Spencer is fascinated by the Internet. "It's brilliant to think you can type in a command and it goes all over the world looking for the information. You can get sound and pictures, which is much more exciting than a book. I really like some lessons now. I want to be a computer programmer when I grow up."

The deputy head, Sally Malawe, says: "What the project has done is raise the literacy levels of many of our pupils. The computers get round the problems some of them have with writing and reading, and it's meant they can produce work of the highest quality.

"What I've seen in the past 18 months is children who have gone from hesitant writers to children who cheer if they have to do a timed 14-minute writing session!"

"The biggest problem for schools like ours is motivation," adds Anthony Austin. "Most of these children have very low self-esteem, and don't perceive themselves as going anywhere but a flat on the estate. Now I think they see themselves as quite special people because of the project, and will leave school equipped with the technology skills needed for a range of jobs."

Behaviour and truancy levels have also improved, as Sally Malawe notes: "I've seen children who were doomed to failure come out saying `I can do it' and `I want to be this when I grow up'"n