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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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.

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.

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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.

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.

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

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