The early learning curve

With skilled guidance, ICT has a lot to offer primary school children
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If anything, says Janice Staines, primary and foundation adviser to the DfES-funded British Educational Communications and Technology Agency (BECTA), ICT has transformed the delivery of the primary school Foundation Year, KS1 and KS2 curriculum even more than it has that of its secondary school sibling.

If anything, says Janice Staines, primary and foundation adviser to the DfES-funded British Educational Communications and Technology Agency (BECTA), ICT has transformed the delivery of the primary school Foundation Year, KS1 and KS2 curriculum even more than it has that of its secondary school sibling.

Despite the shortage of computer hardware in some primary schools, their sheer geography - and specifically the fact that class teachers tend to be with their pupils all day, in only a handful of locations - can make it far easier, she says, to incorporate ICT into teaching in a small primary than in a larger secondary.

"Teachers are multi-skilled and most of them have now received training in ICT via the New Opportunities Fund programme paid for out of Lottery money," she says. "If the average primary school had just one computer a decade ago, that figure has jumped to six or seven computers today. In that 10-year period, the impact of ICT on primary education has been dramatic."

Given the enthusiasm with which primary schools have embraced the wide range of multimedia teaching aids for numeracy, literacy, science - less so in other less "priority" areas perhaps - it is little wonder that the Government's ambition of one laptop for every eight primary schoolchildren is already, in some schools, being exceeded a whole year before its 2005 target date.

Although teachers are the most important learning resource in any primary school, Staines says the delights of Wordshark 3, Numbershark 3 or the BBC's Where In The World Is Barnaby Bear? - three of the current Top 10 software titles on the R-E-M educational software distribution website - have added interest and stimulation to the classroom for a generation of children who have been raised in a rapid response, multimedia world.

Taking literacy as an example, the top-selling Wordshark, published by White Space, is just one of the software products used widely in schools for teaching children of five and up. Designed to combine the excitement of computer games with the more challenging task of learning to read and spell, it uses sound, graphics and text to reinforce word recognition and spelling.

"There will never be a substitute for a whole class sitting on the carpet listening to the teacher telling a story from a traditional book," she says, "but the use of interactive whiteboards, say, to help young children without fine motor skills to form their letters better or gain confidence in maths calculation is helping to motivate pupils and encourage them to get more involved in their learning."

The new generation of electronic whiteboards - which allow teachers simultaneously to open, work on and then store words and images via a number of different windows - neatly builds on the skills that teachers have already acquired through the use of blackboards and chalks or traditional whiteboards and pens. While some fixed whiteboards are a logistical problem for smaller children, schools are busy devising platforms that allow even the tiniest five-year-old to reach the top.

While ICT is, for many schools, an all-embracing new toy, it is important to stress that computers will never take the place of teachers in the primary school classroom. "The teaching itself is done by human beings, not computers," says Staines, "and while ICT allows a young child to practise what he or she is learning via a whole range of resources in a stimulating way, it cannot replace the relationship between the child and the teacher and nor should it be seen as an effortless or lazy way of learning."

Although the Government was at one time very keen on giving every schoolchild their own personal e-mail address, question marks over the safety of that strategy have ensured that class-based, not individual e-mail addresses are now seen as the best way forward. The development of regional broadband consortia too is ensuring that more Foundation, KS1 and KS2 content can be delivered online, but again, children should be encouraged to use the internet as just one of the learning tools available and should test for themselves the authenticity of the Web, says Staines.

"As children reach Year 5 or 6, it is important that they learn to check where Web-based information is coming from and assess whether there is any bias involved. In effect though, this is no different to ensuring that a map of the world in a traditional book is up to date or a stargazer's guide has the very latest information on the solar system."

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