Secondary teaching: Cappuccino culture for teenagers

In some schools, classrooms are being redesigned to resemble cyber cafés. Virginia Matthews reports
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The Independent Online

At Colne Community School in Brightlingsea, Essex, the ICT Learning Centre – despite its 60 or so matt black, flat-screen computers – is designed to look more like a coffee bar than a secondary school, according to Mark Thomson, assistant principal.

Yet despite the significant increases in GCSE grades, the better coursework presentation and what he calls "rising engagement levels among less motivated pupils" that have followed a £3m investment in technology, Colne's cyber café is just the start of things.

"I'm not sure we want to adopt some of the more extreme ideas currently in research like putting microchips in people's heads or getting them to literally wear computers, but when it comes to exploiting the media of the young – Facebook or mobile- phone technology for example – we are at the very beginning of our journey," he says.

Recently, the school has tried to spark the interest of disaffected Year 10 English students with a sophisticated version of PowerPoint that uses film-streaming techniques to expose the persuasive language in car ads.

ICT is routinely deployed in PE sessions; allowing students to watch their own performance and compare it to that of top athletes via a time- delay mechanism. Throughout the school, laptops and digital cameras are made available to students.

Several hundred miles away, Longfield School in Darlington, County Durham – which caters for around 900 11- to 16-year-olds – has used a £300,000 loan to transform access to technology across all areas of the curriculum, says Dave Hunton, ICT coordinator.

He believes that it is no coincidence that three years since the school installed a brand new, "single-log" ICT system and put an interactive whiteboard into every classroom, there has been a 13 per cent leap in the number of GCSE students achieving A to C grades.

"There aren't many jobs in the Western world that don't involve IT nowadays, and we believe that by embedding technology in everything that we do here, our pupils will be ahead of the game when they go on to further education and work," he says. "Although it's been a huge learning curve for staff, the beauty of the system is that via a single piece of software, both teachers and students can share resources, ideas and results without any fuss."

Although some people will be horrified that some departments at Longfield have done away with textbooks altogether, Hunton is unrepentant. "By providing our pupils with access to a variety of different resources that are bold, colourful and in your face, we feel that we are catering perfectly for today's media-savvy youngster," he says.

At Longfield, all attendance records, behaviour management and assessment data is collated electronically and fed through to parents in the three-times-a-year assessment process. In the long-term, online assessments too may be shared with parents.

Although Hunton believes that girls can be more reticent than boys in mixed-sex ICT classes – a situation that has led some schools to institute single-gender sessions – technology has, for all of their pupils, proved "a great leveller," he says.

"All of us have noticed that homework and coursework is better presented and more colourful, and this can only encourage boys to become as neat as girls have always been.

"As for geeky or macho computer language, we tell our students that it isn't important to know how it works or be familiar with the techie language; only to appreciate what ICT can do for you."

Four years ago, Barking Abbey School was one of five secondary schools selected to take part in the DfES ICT Test Bed project, which aimed to investigate how making technology an integral part of learning could improve attainment levels and school and college development.The test was conducted in areas of relative social and economic disadvantage. Paul Gillary, the ICT coordinator, says that Barking Abbey is now building on the success of that project. He believes that a £2.5m investment in ICT infrastructure at the school is already reaping rewards; not least following this year's 72 per cent A to C grades at A-level.

"We've got document visualisers, large projecting screens and wireless graphic tablets or mobile whiteboards," he says, "and most importantly, we also have plenty of workshops to teach staff from all subjects how to use these things."

Barking Abbey, which has around 1,900 students aged between 11 and 18, has 1,000 computers and two libraries fitted with computers and laser printers and overhead screens. Network upgrades mean that the school now has a 100mb pipeline.

To cope with all the new equipment, the school has increased its support staff from one to three full-time technicians and is one of the few secondary schools in the country to have its own web developer for the school's internet and intranet websites.

'We are going over and above the norm'

Hillcrest School in Bartley Green, Birmingham, is part of the 10-school Oaks Collegiate where 10,000 pupils and 1,000 teachers share resources through a Virtual Learning Environment (VLE) that seeks to raise performance collaboratively.

An all-girls secondary school, Hillcrest became a Microsoft partner school in 2004, gained maths and computing specialist status in 2005, and is currently developing an Interactive Touch Screen Information desk in four languages.

The Collegiate site already offers shared resources for subjects such as science and sport and includes shared document storage, announcements and discussion boards. Hillcrest's own VLE, which links in to the central site created by the school, includes various portals with different access rights as well as Hillcrest Radio and blogging facilities.

"In March, we had a Teacher Training Day where all Year 9 pupils were required to log on from home or from school and complete a set of learning resources assigned to them over the VLE," says Lynda Roan, head teacher.

"Not only did the students enjoy the immediate feedback of results coming back to them online, they also received a really useful lesson in time management."

Staff and pupils at Hillcrest are encouraged to e-mail each other and all resources necessary for lessons are posted on the site.

"We are going over and above the norm in using the ICT facilities available to us," reveals Roan, "and the girls love it. We are able to show parents details of the hotels we'll be staying at on a forthcoming school trip to the States and we even put a recent visit by the Welsh National Opera on a running video."

Although not all parents welcome the new technological age, Roan believes that the "instant access to data on attendance and academic achievement has gone down very well."

"In my experience, parents appreciate being able to see reports and grades online and, if possible, we'd like to involve them more in the online assessment process," says Roan.

"After all, technology is a perfect vehicle through which to invite parents to be closer to us."