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It's technical, really

In the scrappy city of Birmingham, England, educators find unconventional thinking and innovative technology spur a turnaround

By Kim Campbell Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / May 1, 2001


In Birmingham, the second-largest city in England, schools are almost as common as Cadbury eggs. The place where the famous chocolatier first opened up shop is also a city where public education was pioneered in this country in the 1850s.

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Today that innovative spirit is being called on once again, as schools deal with what has become an increasingly troubled time in British education. Teacher shortages and undisciplined pupils are among the challenges facing educators at the beginning of the new millennium.

These problems are certainly on the minds of those in Birmingham, a city in the shadow of London and in the twilight of its industrial years. It is the fifth-poorest area in Britain, and the number of immigrants in its million-plus population is rising.

But several schools are proving that unconventional thinking can raise test scores and assist the city in a key goal: to transform itself from a place that didn't need a particularly well-educated workforce, to one that does.

"We are trying to win what H.G. Wells called the race between education and catastrophe," says Tim Brighouse, the city's chief education officer.

For government-funded schools, the mission offers a unique challenge at a time of tight budgets and close scrutiny. And for three schools in particular,each of which has been on the brink of failure or faced uphill battles in the last decade or so,change has come by straying from well-trod paths - and by taking a hard look at how technology can be harnessed to boost student achievement.

All three have students who reflect the character of this sprawling city. At West Heath Junior School, 40 percent of the 352 students, ages 7 to 11, receive free school meals, meaning there is some degree of unemployment in the family. Robin Hood Primary School has 35 percent of its more than 400 students on free meals. And at Selly Park Technology College for Girls, which primarily serves inner-city students, 75 percent of the pupils ages 11 to 16 are ethnic minorities -the majority from Pakistan -and 66 percent don't speak English at home.

Such demands have prompted teachers to search actively for new ways to meet the needs of their charges. One created a position called "school effectiveness coordinator" (see story, left); another allows students to work outside the classroom on computers with minimal supervision.

"It's about risk-taking, isn't it," says Ann Aston, deputy head teacher (vice principal) at Robin Hood, where it's not uncommon to see young children working in a room by themselves on computers. "If you're going to do anything new in education, it's about risk-taking," she says.

These schools offer computer training that would make most adults envious. Eleven-year-olds are learning how to do Power Point presentations, and teenagers are collaborating with students worldwide.

To give children these opportunities, teachers and administrators have become adept at fundraising and arranging donations from outside sources.

Technology is a high priority in Britain, which leads other top industrialized countries in teacher training and requirements for students, according to a recent study by Research Machines, a British company that offers technology to schools. Although Canada and the United States offer more computers per student, Britain offers wider access to the Internet and a variety of applications, the annual report shows.

Wendy Davies, the head teacher at Selly Park, has been pushing computer skills since she took over the then nearly failing girls' school in 1986. At the time, she obtained four computers for business studies. Today, every department is wired and the school is a testing ground for ICT, or information and communications technology, as it's called in Britain.

'I have Singapore on the line'

Students use computers for classes from science to Russian, and are involved in projects -including video conferencing -with their counterparts in other countries. "With math, it was linking with Singapore and helping them in math. They helped us in basics, but we helped them in thinking skills," she says in an interview at the decades-old school, which was a hospital in World War I.

More than 700 young women attend Selly Park, which has a waiting list and a shortage of classrooms. Students are taught the basics, but it's the focus on ICT, math, and science that gives the school its "technology college" status.

Students say they appreciate the support that teachers, including Ms. Davies, offer them; Davies makes a point of having her staff meet with students in upper grades each week. "We try to be parents to these children," she says, "because it's so important that someone is listening to them."

Some of their core courses, like English, are overcrowded, students say, but they appreciate that the school has "loads of facilities." One thing they love is working with laptops, Davies says. Selly Park is one of several schools piloting a Microsoft laptop approach called "Anywhere Anytime Learning," which it is in turn sharing with others of the city's 500 schools.