Warrington, home to such northern staples as George Formby and Pete Postlethwaite, might be fixed in the imagination as the most low-tech of towns. But it is in fact a hub for some of the most technologically advanced primary schools in Britain.
Five primaries in the most deprived areas of the city have formed an alliance to kit out every child in their top classes with the most up-to-date laptop computers. And this week, for the second year running, the heads of the five "Innov8ed Warrington" schools and some of their pupils will be at the BETT technology in education show alongside PC World Education, which helped to launch the project.
Two of the schools – St Bridget's and Alderman Bolton – were recently visited by Barry Sheerman, MP for Huddersfield and chair of the Commons select committee that covers education. His visit was a clear indication that there is high-level interest in the benefits of screen-based education.
"I will go away impressed, but with some questions," Sheerman told staff and guests at Alderman Bolton. "But I've found more children engaged here than in any of the schools I go to – and I go to more than most MPs. I think it's really exciting and encouraging."
Sir Jim Rose, former director of schools for Ofsted, threw yet more weight behind the use of computer technology in schools in his interim review of the primary curriculum, published last month. The report was welcomed wholeheartedly by the Schools Secretary, Ed Balls. It went so far as to say that computer skills should be given the same importance as reading, writing and arithmetic.
This is the case at St Bridget's Catholic Primary School, where all children in years five and six are given their own state-of-the-art mobile PC, a small, touch-screen device that costs £580 and can be used for web browsing, email and other applications.
The children have sole charge of the devices for the entire school year and are even allowed to take them home. Many pupils in years three and four also have access to "netbooks", the small laptops favoured by commuters, which cost about £200. Secondary schools in the area are said to be looking at the project.
The St Bridget's head teacher, Gary Cunningham, is the moving spirit behind the scheme. He oversaw the generation of £26,000 of initial funding, made up of £11,800 from the e-Learning Foundation (the body that aims to give all children access to a computer at home and at school), £1,000 from the parents, teachers and friends association, £2,400 from the school budget and the balance of £10,800 in parental contributions.
This was the greatest sum the school had spent on a single project, aside from building work. "I was feared to death," Cunningham says. "I didn't know where it was going to go, or even whether it was going to work." But the project has been so successful that, last year, St Bridget's and the other Innov8ed schools exhibited at BETT. "We thought what we were doing was fairly low-level," Cunningham says. "But people thought it was ground-breaking. There was a lot of interest from overseas."
Why all the interest? "Because of the fact that a pupil has his or her own personal device, the fact that you can take it home and the fact that, regardless of ability, you can be on-task – it's great for self-esteem. In a short number of years we will look back and say, 'Do you remember when every child didn't have a device?'"
It's quite a development for St Bridget's, where 35 per cent of children receive free school meals and more than four-fifths of families fall into the top 10 per cent of the Government's deprivation scale. "We've got dire needs in this area," Cunningham says.
Despite this, he still manages to attract parental contributions to his laptop scheme. If parents are reluctant to pay the £20-a-term fee, he lets the child take the PC home for a trial. "Then I say [to the parents], 'Gimme £1 a week.' When they see the kids and what they're doing, they say, 'That's the best pound I've spent all week.' Then you're turning attitudes around," he says.
Home internet access is far from complete – about 60 per cent of the pupils' homes are online – but Cunningham acknowledges that allowing the children to use the devices to access the internet from home, away from the school's protective firewall, is "a big concern. But it's a necessary risk."
Sir Jim Rose's primary review also recommended that children be taught how to make presentations. At Alderman Bolton Community Primary School, a short drive away, Jak Holt, 10, shows me how he can look up information on the internet and put together a slideshow using the inbuilt software. "It's better than just doing it on paper, and you can save all of your work," he says. "Pen and paper is just boring."
He then shows me a website called TutPup, which is all the rage in primary schools. It allows pupils to do maths and spelling exercises and to compete against other children in schools around the world.
Alison Astley, a teacher at Alderman Bolton, says the PCs are a great help to those with poor handwriting, and TutPup helps with multiplication tables. Last year's SATs results, she says, were the best ever.
She also says the computers have been a boon for children with special needs. "They'll all be doing individualised learning that is pitched at their own level, so they feel part of the class. For those children, it does give a sense of achievement," Astley says.
But reactions to the the project have not been unanimously positive. Cunningham says that, in trying to spread the idea to other schools in leafier areas, there has been opposition from parents unsure about their children carrying around such expensive bits of kit.
Traditionalists, too, have raised concerns. "The thing that worries me about using computers too early is that it interferes with learning to read and write," says Sue Palmer, author of Toxic Childhood: How Modern Life Is Damaging Our Children. "Everyone thinks that ICT is wonderful – and it is – but it could be counterproductive for children before they learn to read and write."
Cunningham says that the computer is not a replacement for good teaching or books. "It's just another layer that can enthuse children and hopefully engage them when they're outside school as well," he says. "But they've got to have a firm grounding in phonics."
He says his cut-off is year three, and he doesn't see the project extending down into Key Stage 1. But some of the other Innov8ed schools are experimenting by giving devices to children younger than seven.Reuse content