The 24/7 school: Welcome to the future

There's a comprehensive in Essex that is anything but bog-standard. In fact, as Richard Garner reports, it's the prototype of the school of the future: open all day round for ages three to 16, and every pupil has a laptop...
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The Independent Online

The scene in the reception class makes you blink. In one corner, four-year-olds are throwing sand at one another and scampering around in a sandpit. Opposite, another group of four-year-olds are plugged into laptops, tapping out messages and drawing pictures on computer screens.

The scene in the reception class makes you blink. In one corner, four-year-olds are throwing sand at one another and scampering around in a sandpit. Opposite, another group of four-year-olds are plugged into laptops, tapping out messages and drawing pictures on computer screens.

Chafford Hundred Campus is a unique school, describing itself as a "24/7" – one of a new breed of schools open round the clock, seven days a week, and laying on whatever course for whoever in the community wants it, at whatever time.

It is a prototype for everything Estelle Morris, the Education Secretary, has been talking about when she speaks of a radical shake-up to the education system. For a start, it takes pupils all the way through from the age of three to 16. No worries here transferring from primary to secondary school. No fears that the teacher might not know what you are capable of.

Indeed, some of the Government's new city academies – schools sponsored by industry and run by them on the lines of the independent sector – are expected to follow this model.

Chafford Hundred Campus, however, is – to all intents and purposes – a Thurrock comprehensive, although it is certainly not "bog-standard", to quote Alastair Campbell, the Prime Minister's official spokesman. Ms Morris has already visited it.

It is open from dawn until dusk – hence the 24/7 tag. There are breakfast clubs in the cybercafé at which pupils can get in a bit of early practice on their computers over their bacon and eggs, and adult education classes lasting late into the evening. "You can have your wedding reception here," says Alison Banks, head teacher of the secondary school. "It can be hired out for conferences, residents' meetings, community events, you name it."

The school contains a public library and sports facilities (tennis courts and football pitches) that can be rented out in the evenings and at weekends. Educationally, though, its biggest innovation is its attitude to learning information technology. Every pupil has his or her own laptop, and secondary-school pupils have their own lockers in which they can leave the laptop overnight or during the lunch-break to charge them up. Each classroom has a new whiteboard linked to the internet, and a host of online teaching materials to make lessons come alive in a way that a blackboard never could.

There are no wires in the classrooms, however. The pupils don't have to do anything as old-tech as plug in their laptops because they are powered by radio waves. Like the teachers, they are adept at using new technology. "The four-year-olds take to it very easily," says Debbie Welbourne, the reception-class teacher. "Some of them have seen their parents' computers at home and some can use the keyboard to write simple words." (As we speak, one is busy tapping in "I love my mummy". Another is drawing a picture of a dog with her mouse.)

The school serves one of the largest new housing developments in the South-east. Nestling near the Dartford flyover on the M25, and built on the site of a former cement works, it is an area to which families from the East End of London are moving – a Harlow or Stevenage of the 21st century.

Traditionally, it has been an area of low educational achievement, according to Mrs Banks. The Chafford Hundred experiment hopes to change that. A development company put £5.5m of capital funding into the school, Toshiba is supplying the state-of-the-art technology, and parents can pay money into an e-learning foundation – a charity that ploughs money back into the school for technological innovation.

Toshiba has been so impressed with the school's innovative way of teaching technology, that it has seconded one of its teachers, Jenny Foster, to its "ambassadors" programme, in which 10 representatives from the education system exchange ideas on teaching styles.

The school, which opened last September, will grow to its full size over the next five years. The last academic year saw the primary school full with 230 pupils, but in the secondary school there were only 120 pupils, the first year's intake.

Next week, another 120 will join them. Secondary pupils are enjoying the technology. "In my old school, they used to have a room set aside for the computers," says Sammy Clarke, 12. "Here you use them in every room."

Chafford Hundred is believed to be in the vanguard of technological achievement in schools. That is why it is on the itinerary of visits to Britain by European heads. As they would say on Star Trek: "It's education, Jim, but not as we know it!"

r.garner@independent.co.uk

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