Thousands of teachers hoping to glimpse the future of nursery, primary and secondary education converged at Birmingham's NEC Arena at the end of last week for the Education Show. The annual three-day event, which attracts around 17,000 visitors, featured more than 600 exhibitors showcasing their newest educational products.
The show also boasted more than 80 seminars and workshops in continuing professional development, as well as a special one-off feature called Learning by Reading, with live demonstrations from children's authors and publishers.
The show's organisers were clearly keen to promote the National Year of Reading – that's 2008, in case you didn't know – dedicating the final day of the event to a series of seminars on how to motivate youngsters to read.
"This year's show reflected the many areas of change we're due to see in 2008," says Briony Mansell-Lewis, director of exhibitions at Emap Public Sector, which organises the Education Show in partnership with the British Educational Suppliers Association. "There was a huge range of products on display; from stuffed toys for early-years teaching to furniture that's going to completely change the way classrooms look."
Denise Cripps is the managing director of education at Scholastic, the world's largest publisher and distributor of children's books, who were responsible for publishing Philip Pullman's phenomenally successful His Dark Materials trilogy. Scholastic's seminars instructed teachers in the art of storytelling, as a way of persuading their pupils to read in their spare time.
"It's all about learning how to tell a story, and really engage and excite children with it," she says, "and it was lovely that the Education Show created a space for doing that. The event is really important for us, because we get to talk to teachers directly."
Although the show had a largely literary flavour this year, one of the biggest talking points was the launch of the Elonex ONE, the first laptop in Britain to be priced at under £100.
Similar products were showcased at the BETT technology fair in London in January, but Elonex is the first company to seriously match affordability with portability. Their efforts paid off: by noon on the first day of the show, they had already sold more than 26,000 computers.
"Everyone who came to see it loved it," says Sam Goult, marketing manager at Elonex. "The idea is to give every child in the country access to their own laptop, with all the software that they'd need to use on a day-to-day basis. It's extremely light and mobile so it can also be taken on field trips – we're hoping it'll give kids a much more engaging educational experience."
The laptops have a simple user interface, but they are also powerful. Each computer comes with a word processor, spreadsheet creator, PDF reader and MP3 player, and can be used to access the internet.
"Computing and the internet have now completely taken over the modern world, so we thought it was vital to make it accessible to schoolchildren," says Goult. "Now that laptops are a part of the modern world, the chance of every pupil having one has become a distinct possibility."
Another part of the NEC was given over to the less hi-tech but still popular area of educational furnishings. British Thornton is one of the country's leading manufacturers in this area. This was the company's first time at the event in a decade, and they decided to use the opportunity to showcase their new selection of primary school furniture.
The emphasis nowadays is on removing the traditional hierarchy of the classroom, by placing teachers at the centre of the room rather than at the front. Banks of desks are designed to be as mobile as possible, so they can adapt to whatever shape the teacher requires.
Nick Jevons, marketing manager at British Thornton, says: "We're creating fully flexible learning environments, allowing the classroom to change its character depending on what you want to teach. It's about moving away from the old image of teaching and making it much more flexible and interactive, which is very exciting."