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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

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Birmingham is the largest education authority in England (London has more schools, but is divided into multiple authorities). It was one of the first to get all its schools online in January 1999 through the Birmingham Grid for Learning (www.bgfl.org) where students, parents, and teachers can go for information. Professor Brighouse says they are also experimenting with e-tutoring video links, and envisions that five years from now there will be distance video teaching. "I'm absolutely sure," he says.

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For now, more advanced schools are helping others navigate ICT methods. Robin Hood opened in 1989. It serves children (ages 3 to 11) from low-income housing, but boasts a video editing room and a screening room for presentations.

Its approach to letting children use computers on their own began out of necessity -there simply weren't enough staff available to supervise and only a limited number of machines. They had to trust their "gut" instinct, as Ms. Aston puts it, and give the children an unusual opportunity. Rather than send students out of class as punishment, "we've kept the ethos that getting to work outside the classroom is a privilege," she says.

That approach is in keeping with the school's philosophy that children should think for themselves. "They come into schools quite independent," Aston says. "It's the school system that knocks that independence out of them."

As the school grew, and educators realized how computers could help support struggling students, an environment developed in which students were encouraged to explain software to teachers, and are even tapped to be tutors for their peers. "When we're talking about education in the 21st century, one of the questions is, 'Who is a learner?'" Aston says. "There are going to be times when grownups are learners."

At the school, students talk about their teachers and projects -including spreadsheets and video editing -with enthusiasm. They also talk about being independent, "because the teacher's not going to be there all the time. You need to learn things just for yourself and learn how to work them out," says Leon, who is in his last year at Robin Hood.

Aston says exposing them to technology has its drawbacks when the schools they move on to aren't as advanced. Her pupils feed into eight or nine different schools, and "most have a very disappointing experience," she says.

Robin Hood and Selly Park -which often work together - are among the top 5 percent of schools in the city in terms of ICT, Brighouse says. All three schools are representative of the energy and drive of the top half of the schools, he says. They've created environments that students say are calmer and safer than elsewhere, and offer unique opportunities. All have won awards or been recognized by the national government or the royal family.

Preet Sahota, the head teacher at West Heath Junior School, also took over a school that was near failing in 1998. He had no budget, and parents were taking their kids elsewhere. He opted to make a radical change: He brought in a consultant he knew and later hired her in a part-time position called "school effectiveness coordinator."

At first, some of her ideas didn't go over well -like a literacy center for required classes. "It was a big challenge. We had a lot of staff that had been there a very long time, and they didn't welcome the changes," says Maria Aldridge, a former teacher who was named to the new post.

Once vandalized, now inviting

But almost three years on, dramatic changes have occurred at the school where vandalism and introverted students were common. Test scores have improved, the school environment is more inviting, and other schools are visiting to see how they have made ICT a central theme.

Early on, Ms. Aldridge acquired more computers and put them in a dedicated room -one designed to look like a spaceship. This year, a cyber cafe was opened as well. "What we try to promote is independent learning," she says, echoing colleagues at other schools. "This is the way forward, to give them this confidence to deal with ICT, which will be in every aspect of their life when they leave school."

Children design book covers and search the Internet for projects on weather stations. It's great to have more computers, they say, because an entire class can work at once. "There are not many schools that have a station for each child," Aldridge says.

West Health would like to innovate further. "We're miles ahead, but can't do it because we haven't got the funds," Mr. Sahota says. Still, he's not discouraged. "We're sitting tight. We've learned the art of patience."

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor