Recent reports suggest technology alone is no guarantee of results, but one school knows what can be achieved if digital tools are expertly wielded, says Lloyd Burgess…

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Entering a primary school that has wholeheartedly embraced ICT and technology is a strange experience. Everything else here feels familiar. The brightly coloured classrooms and corridors, the wall displays of children’s work, and even the hanging bunting of flags (for the rugby World Cup) that I’m ducking under as assistant head Stephen Hawke shows me around Grafton Primary in Dagenham. But the most noticeable difference between my primary years some quarter of a century ago and my visit today is the giant screen at the front of each and every classroom.

“The touchscreens all went in over a half term week,” says Stephen. “When the kids all came back in they were like, ‘This is incredible’, and that was when they thought they were just giant TVs. But then teachers started interacting with the screens, and the kids were amazed.” The screens in question are Clevertouch 84” interactive touchscreens, but the school has a few slightly smaller models in the library and break-out spaces too. There is also the more familiar sight of collections of iPads, and there is an ICT suite used for lessons and code club. Previously, the school had little more than old projectors that didn’t work half the time, and no interactivity in the classroom at all, other than a visualiser. So headteacher Martin Nicholson wanted to take the school down a more technology-driven path, as Stephen explains: “It was quite a jump, if you will. I joined the school in September 2013 as a class teacher. But the following January I was employed as assistant head and ICT coordinator,” he says. “Martin will often say he’s the least computer-literate person here, but while it might not be one of his personal skills, he’s aware that children need to be skilled in ICT these days.”

After updating the server, and redoing everyone’s computers so that they were up to scratch, Stephen brought in the Clevertouch screens a few months later, and increased the number of iPads. “One of the first things I said to staff is that they shouldn’t think of the screens as theirs, that they should let the children come up and play with them,” he explains. “It’s got to be an interactive tool for them, not just something with which the teacher can show off.” The screens are made from toughened glass, so there’s no danger of little hands unwittingly breaking your expensive new equipment. “We do get sticky fingers on the screen though,” says Stephen. “One of the technician’s big jobs is wiping off all the screens and iPads, bless him.”

Technology moves fast, so buying in bulk for schools can be a risky business. “When we bought the screens we also looked at alternative companies offering similar products,” says Stephen. “The reason we went with Clevertouch was they were more robust, and you could tell that the software packages were made with teachers in mind. It was the same with the iPads, I did a lot of research comparing them with Android tablets, looking at pros and cons, and what was going to work out best for us.”

The big question, however, is whether this has had an effect on the pupils. “I think it’s definitely improved the learning experience of the children across all abilities,” says Stephen. “For example, teachers can set different levels on the apps for each child to work to on their iPads without it being obvious to their peers. Ultimately, technology helps the children to access and engage on a more sensory level, which makes it more enjoyable and helps information to penetrate.”

“There’s a lot of fun to be had with the kids,” says Stephen. “A lot of the time you’ll give them that end goal, and they’ll come up with something completely different to what you thought they were going to do. They’ve got that unfiltered imagination, if you will. It’s great to see. Behaviour has always been good at Grafton, but I think the children get more excited knowing there is going to be some sort of interactivity in that lesson. So rather than being more passive learners, they’re actually more focused and engaged.”