The King's School is way ahead of the pack when it comes to using the latest classroom technology

Richard Garner discovers how teachers and pupils stay connected
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The Independent Online

It is, impressively, one of the oldest established schools in the country – dating back to 970AD, before the Norman Conquest.

It was granted a Royal Charter by Henry VIII during the dissolution of the monasteries – and it has just acquired the Old Palace, the residence of the Bishops of Ely from 1485, which now plays host to boarding sixth formers.

All this may conjure up pictures of learned monks or clerics teaching their charges with quill pens – but nothing could be further from the truth. The King's School, Ely, a private boarding school in Cambridgeshire, is gaining a reputation as one of the leading exponents of using modern technology in the classroom – a mix of ancient and modern, if you like.

It might have some of the former Old Palace bishops turning in their graves, but it is now a common sight to see pupils studying their digital devices as they move between classes in their historic surroundings.

Under one pioneering initiative, pupils in the junior school – which caters for children up to and including Year Eight (13-year-olds) – can log in to an app and describe any achievement they think worthy of bringing to the attention of their teachers, or indeed, their classmates.

King's School embraces modern teaching methods in a historic setting (Teri Pengilley)

"With the best will in the world, teachers can't talk to every pupil every day," says deputy head Andy Marshall. "This is a way of them bringing to the attention of their teacher or their school something they think is significant."

The site is littered with comments ranging from the exotic ("I went snowmobiling in Finland") to the more mundane ("I have got new spectacles"). "They can record anything – whether they have joined a club or just have something they want their teachers to know about," says Mr Marshall.

The app builds up a remarkably detailed picture of the individual pupils and their achievements – a sort of super CV – at a time when the great debate in education is whether schools should be producing more "rounded and grounded" human beings.

"We are certainly not a sausage factory," says headmistress Sue Freestone, the school's first female head, who has been in post for 11 years.

King's School head Sue Freestone (Teri Pengilley)

The pupils can tick a box that will limit their entry to just teachers, or allow it to go through to be seen by their peers as well. "You may find that there are some times when they don't want everybody to know what they've done," says Mr Marshall, "like a boy who is very good at ballet. One-to-one with a teacher, he is happy to share his achievement, but he may not want it to go to the whole class. We can treat these things as private things that don't come out in all their glory to the whole class."

The school pioneered the initiative with just one year group last year, but it has now spread to the whole junior school.

The unique mixture of the ancient and the modern is perhaps best demonstrated by an area in the Old Palace known as the "medieval and technology" room (not medieval technology, which has quite a different meaning).

An interesting mixture of philosophy and progress in the school's ethos is possibly best summed up by some of the sayings displayed on the walls, such as, "the question of whether a computer can think is like the question of whether a submarine can swim" or "to err is human and to blame it on the computer even more human". And then again, "I changed my password to 'incorrect', so whenever I forget what it is the computer will say 'your password is incorrect'."

The school's use of technology is no theoretical matter, though. It has won an award for the way it has established international links with other schools. "My passion is bringing the outside world into the classroom, making international links," says language teacher Lorraine Oldham.

Inside the sixth form ICT room (Teri Pengilley)

For instance, the school has twinned with a school on the French-speaking island of Réunion – just off Madagascar. Such a link has helped develop an understanding of the region's culture as well as its language.

"I felt that it was important for children to learn that there was a lot more to French speaking than just the country of France," says Ms Oldham. "It is a volcanic island facing seven of the natural disasters [a country can face]." Potentially, that is.

To forge links, the pupils at King's prepared a video about their school for their new-found friends. In addition, when addressing assemblies, the pupils also show videos of what their sports teams have achieved.

The school, which has fees of up to £31,000 a year, has flourished and grown in the past few years. It now has about 1,000 pupils – split into its pre-junior phase, the junior and senior schools, a separate international school with about 40 pupils and the sixth form, housed at the Old Palace. In all, about 30 per cent of the pupils are from overseas – which helps boost its language provision, as senior overseas students act as language mentors for younger pupils.

It takes children from the age of three to 18 – and boasts a coherent education, with no real break between primary and secondary phases.

"Lots of schools teach children from three to 18 – but we have made it so the educational provision is just continuing all the way through," Ms Freestone says. "I have heard it said that sometimes schools can lose six months in progress in the transition between primary and secondary school. That won't happen here – we move seamlessly from one year to the next year."

And, it would seem, they also move just as seamlessly from the ancient world of academe to the new world of technology.