My first-hand experience of a first-class IT education

sacred-heart-1-300x199PC Pro’s had a fair bit to say about the standard of IT education over the years, not least the shambolic ICT GCSE examination papers that thousands of pupils will be sitting this summer. Good luck with those, kids – even our IT experts were baffled by some of the poorly-worded or just plain wrong questions.

My first-hand experience of a first-class IT education

Yesterday, however, I had the pleasure of visiting Sacred Heart High School in Hammersmith – a refreshing example of what can happen when a school gets IT teaching absolutely right.

IT clearly isn’t just another subject that’s taught in the computer rooms at Sacred Heart. It’s intelligently woven into the entire school curriculum and is an everyday part of school life.

I saw how a class of 11-year-olds were practising their French by recording themselves on  pocket Flip Mino camcorders, and then editing the footage on Dell’s new Latitude 2100 netbooks. It didn’t matter if the netbooks didn’t have video-editing software installed, because the pupils could log into their virtual Windows desktops and access the required software over the network.

In fact, virtualisation is second nature to these children. Work completed in school is saved to each pupil’s virtual hard drive, which they can remotely access from home to complete their homework.

When the homework’s done, pupils are encouraged to write about their school day on their personal blogs. The Year 9 girls have been blogging since they first arrived at the school, almost three years ago – which means they’ve already got more experience of blogging than several of the PC Pro staff.

They’ve also got plenty of video production experience. Aside from the French lessons, the pupils run Sacred Heart TV, the school’s in-house video channel. When the school recently refurbished its cloakrooms, the pupils shot, presented and edited a video showing off the new facilities  (headteacher Dr Christine Carpenter was given a walk-on role – she got to flush the new toilets).

PC building lessons

sacred-heart-2-300x199It’s not only camcorders and laptops the children are working with. IT technician Mr Wilson helped the pupils build four new PCs from scratch last year. Deputy Head Ian Donegan told us how the school had also been experimenting with mobile phones and PSP consoles in the classrooms. So instead of surreptitiously texting their mates at the back of the class, the pupils are shown how to quickly look up when the pyramids were built on their mobile phone.

The teachers admitted that not all the mobile devices had been a success – the awkward interface and lack of keyboard on the PSP had proved to be more of a hindrance than a help, but what impressed me was the staff had been prepared to give it a go. Headteacher Dr Carpenter admitted she didn’t have the first clue how most of this technology worked herself, but she was willing to give her tech-savvy staff – and pupils – the opportunity to experiment and see what worked.

In fact, the pupils aren’t only on the receiving end of the technology – they help decide what software and hardware the school should use. “We’re entering their world. These young people know what they want to use,” Donegan told us. “We miss a trick if we do not listen to what they’ve got to say.”

All-round education

sacred-heart-3-300x199The end result? A classroom full of pupils that are so engaged in what they’re learning that – after a few minutes – they barely even seemed to notice the pack of journalists walking around their classroom, and carried on editing their French lessons as normal. Of course this was a pre-arranged visit and I’m sure the school handpicked the pupils that took part in our demonstration, but these girls weren’t feigning an interest. It was patently obvious they are as au fait with video editing software and touchscreen netbooks, as they are with Hannah Montana and Hollyoaks.

By the time these girls leave school at 16, many of them will be experienced bloggers and videographers, who know their way around a virtual desktop and can turn a pile of components into a PC. Not only that, but they’ll leave with armfuls of GCSEs: 97% of the school’s pupils leave with five GCSEs grades A*-C. And all this from a state school, albeit in a rather well-heeled part of London.

But what impressed me most about Sacred Heart was that almost none of this was the result of a Government diktat or local authority initiative – the headteacher hadn’t even heard of the Government IT agency BECTA and bridled at the suggestion of being dictated to by her local authority. Instead, it was achieved by a forward-thinking headteacher and an enthused, switched-on staff who could see the benefits of IT for their pupils and, indeed, themselves.

 Someone send Education Secretary Ed Balls to this school to see how it’s done. Actually, scrap that. Someone send Dr Carpenter and her staff to the Department of Education and let them get on with it. 

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