Rewired for a new era: New schools are putting IT at the heart of their plans

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The Independent Online

It's hard to imagine, but there was a time when schools existed without computers. Now, of course, information technology underpins much, if not all, of what happens in a school, and when a new school is built – or rebuilt – the technological plan is at the heart of all decisions.

The so-called ICT vision is central to all new secondary schools built under the Government's Building Schools for the Future (BSF) programme, and other major capital projects, such as the Academies and Primary Capital programmes.

The starting point for developing that vision, says Nina Woodcock, head of capital building at the Government's educational technology agency, Becta, should always be an educational case. "We don't say there's a right or a wrong way of including ICT in a school," she says. "The point is that you have to make decisions based on what you want the learning outcomes to be. You might want to favour small group, independent or mixed-age learning. But whatever you favour, the design and technology should be viewed as the key to enable that to happen."

Johnny Ball, the TV personality known for his educational children's programmes, is Becta's "next generation learning ambassador", and he endorses the importance of teachers and builders working together.

"A good teacher can work in a field, and the buildings and technology have to enhance the ability of teachers to teach," he says.

One brand new school benefiting from careful planning is Thomas Deacon Academy, in Peterborough, which opened with 2,200 pupils in 2007, merging three smaller secondary schools. The art deco-like exterior houses a mix of conventional classrooms and open spaces, linked by walkways and staircases reminiscent of an airport terminal. More than 1,000 computers cater for every teaching scenario.

"I think one of the very good things we managed to do was to decide on our ICT strategy at the same time as we designed the building, the curriculum and the structure of the school day," says Steve Warburton, innovation director at the school.

He decided the school should use "thin client devices", consisting of a screen, keyboard and mouse, but which use the school's central server as a processor. They are cheaper, more energy efficient, and quieter, says Warburton, "so teachers in classrooms don't have to compete with the sound of 30 PCs".

Collectively, these machines give the school an impressive ratio of one computer to every two students, which, says Warburton, has achieved his aim of making computers available to any student wanting to research or work independently, as well as having enough for teachers to use whole class sets whenever they want.

Some schools and local authorities favour providing as many mobile devices as possible. Sometimes these are banks of laptops stored on trolleys. But a more ambitious approach is to give pupils personal use of their own device.

In the vanguard here is Wolverhampton, which is about to move into the design and building phase for six new secondary schools, including two new academies, and two new primaries, all of which will have mobile computers as a central part of their ICT setup.

David Whyley, headteacher consultant for learning services at the city council, and a former primary head, says he wants all pupils to have their own device to take with them wherever they want. "It must give them access to the web, have a built-in digital camera and above all, be seen as cool: something they will want to carry around," he says. The traditional ICT suite doesn't have a place in Wolverhampton's schools of the future, says Whyley.

This all-mobile approach is already being trialled at one secondary in the city, St Edmund's Catholic School, where all pupils in both Years 7 and 11 have their own small mobile computer which allows them to store e-books and teachers' Powerpoint presentations, which include blank pages for pupils' own notes.

An increasingly common feature of ICT in new schools is "managed service", where all computer systems are managed by the technology firm that supplied them, rather than by school staff. This is always the case in BSF projects, which are usually council-wide schemes with one technology supplier installing and running equipment at a number of schools.

"For many schools, this is a big shift," says Steve Moss, strategic director of ICT at Partnership for Schools, the agency delivering the BSF programme. "My advice to schools is to go and visit places that currently have a managed service to find out how it works," he says.

Yewlands Technology College, a newly built BSF school in Sheffield, which opened last September, has computers that are managed and serviced by on-site technicians employed by the technology firm, Civica.

"We worked long and hard with the provider, and from day one, everything worked," explains associate head John Innes. He says the 900 pupils have access to computers whenever they need them. "Four months in, on the whole, staff are incredibly positive about the experience."