Ophelia Vanderpuye

Award-winning teacher Ophelia Vanderpuye opens horizons with learning and technology

Television sitcom and National Theatre thespian Peter Egan was working with the most flexible actors imaginable. The Year 4 and 5 pupils at Oakington Manor Primary School, Wembley, were using his drama workshop to develop their film on bullying. They were thinking and talking about bullying, empathising and role-playing, and sparking the magic and dynamism of the theatre.

But that was just a starter. Peter then went into the radio studio in Ophelia Vanderpuye's cutting edge classroom to be interviewed by three Year 5 girls for a part-scripted, three-way 'conversation' for the Celebrity Corner on the school's radio station. It was as interesting as anything you'll hear on Radio 4.

In fact you can hear the Peter Egan interview right now, online, at the Oak Mag Radio Network, the multi-channel internet radio station that Oakington Manor has run for years with neighbouring St Mary Magdalen's Catholic Junior School. To a first-time observer lucky enough to sit in on the production it was an astonishing example of creative, engaging and accomplished learning and teaching.

Knows exactly how to inspire and support

From supporting other teachers and their pupils with filming, recording, photography and organisation, to using the resources of her own classroom for specific projects and lessons, many of them innovative and fresh, Ophelia Vanderpuye knows exactly how to inspire and support. And she was just as happy supporting Peter Egan and her colleagues in the school hall, where they involved the children in imaginative improvised drama work on bullying, as she was to light-touch choreograph her group of three girls as they interviewed Peter Egan in the small but perfectly formed radio  studio built on to her classroom.

It was a deeply impressive interview which had been carefully constructed as a three-way conversation so the children could introduce their own items and opinions as well as subject Peter to questions that brought out everything needed for the broadcast. Such a thoughtful approach ensured a quality result.

Peter EganActor Peter Egan: his pupil interviewers didn't even rustle their scriptsAnd even star visitor Peter Egan, who has been around the media interview block a few times, was intrigued. Especially when his 11-year-old hosts didn't, like many professional radio interviewers, rustle their scripts. "You've all been fantastic," he said in wonder as the 20-minute interview came to an end. "This is a piece of radio technique – you haven't rustled the paper at all... and you've all dealt with that very, very well."

However, this was nothing particularly unusual for Oakington, a school which, when it was awarded its ICT Mark certification, exceeded the standard in more than 50 of the 57 sections. Which isn't so surprising when you consider that Oakington Manor helped pioneer podcasting in education. The school worked closely with developer Softease to help the development of Podium software for podcasting on Windows PCs, just as it moved on to giving feedback to suppliers like Amazing Interactive on the use of 3D digital materials for learning and teaching. Next came the school's own 3D filming...

It doesn't take long to work out that one of the key reasons behind Oakington's success with technology has been its ICT and advanced skills teacher Ophelia Vanderpuye whose work was recognised when she picked up the NAACE ICT Impact Primary Award 2012. Naace said it was for "working tirelessly to inspire teachers from all over the UK and abroad to visit the school and to share good practice in the use of ICT and emerging technologies".

That's Ophelia down to a T, and her influence has been widely felt. Not only has she supported learning with technology at Oakington Manor, and across the north west London borough of Brent, but she has even worked in her own time, for example as a role model for ICT professionals, helping people in South African townships get to grips with the skills and approaches they need to work in their country's rapidly developing IT industry.

How to spread the message for digital video? Try a film festival

Ophelia VanderpuyeOphelia Vanderpuye: 'Spark that lights a child's imagination'It's not just just the capability and innovative approach that impresses but the readiness for scaling up. This is evident in her building on success, as with digital video. How do you share the new wave of children's interest in, and success with. new media? How about a school film festival? Within days of broaching the idea, children were getting involved in the organisation, thinking about how to spread the message, create the posters. "They came and wrote scripts at lunchtimes. I had a class of children working on editing the films, choosing the films to be shown, even recording videos to go with the film festival." Instead of holding back, as many others are tempted to do, Ophelia Vanderpuye simply follows the learning. Children are involved in all parts of the processes. Expectations run high and they are normally met.

The desire to share and open horizons has often extended to holidays. When visiting foreign countries, Ophelia has often arranged to slip into local schools. And she has also travelled extensively for her work, including a trip to China. Don't mistake it for obsessive professionalism: it's totally infused with the pleasure, and fun, of learning, particularly with peers.

SInce her Naace award the progress has continued without pause. Ophelia visited the BETT educational technology show in London's Docklands in January to host visitors from Denmark and Nigeria, and by March she was working  with Professor Hiroyuki Tanaka from Osaka University, Japan, who was visiting to discuss further involvement in the online research project Oakington Manor is carrying out with Hamadera Primary School, Osaka, Japan.

"We started this research project in October 2012 and have moved into the second phase, where children from both schools are sharing presentations about their countries and more importantly, about the things that are important to them and their lives," explains Ophelia. "So far it has been a really exciting project, Hamadera has shared and presented our project to more than 20 schools from all around Japan, attended by more than 100 teachers. It received many positive comments from the participating teachers and the Sakai City Educational Authority. The experimental mathematics lesson compared life for Year 6 children at Hamadera and Oakington Manor, offering all the children involved an opportunity to get a glimpse of life for children in both countries.The statistical data presented showed very interesting trends among children of that age."

Teachers visit Germany as part of their Comenius project

And then there's the Comenius European lifelong learning project currently being run with six schools, two in the UK, two in Germany, one in Bulgaria and one in Italy: "Our teachers will make their first visit to Lingen, Germany, in June and you can have a look at our project on the Comenius website.

Where does it all come from? Ophelia has always kept her horizons wide open, and for her colleagues and her learners. As a young Londoner of 'new Brit' parents (they were from Ghana) she was taught from an early age to be ready for any challenge. And she had ready inspiration on the technical side from her uncles. While she wasn't a 'tomboy', she was just as happy blasting round her Scalectrix track as she was with playing house.

Ophelia VanderpuyeOphelia's classroom: as good as any in BSF schools"I remember as a child I used to buy magazines and I used to program," she says. "My thing was trying to do arcade games in the days of Amstrad. I used to tweak them, change the colours and sizes, make them do something slightly different to the magazine listings, and it was a hobby."

Her first job was as a scientist at Moorfields Eye Hospital and the science has remained a constant theme, in her teaching too. It was while working as a lab technician in a school that a teacher spotted her potential for teaching and the rest is history. He natural aptitude for technology and science opened up great new opportunities.

Ophelia Vanderpuye points to her good fortune working in a school where the senior management is committed to using technology for learning. It's embedded throughout the school, without a hint of overkill anywhere. Appropriate use of ICT is the norm and even in Ophelia's own classroom, which is probably the most technology-rich space in the school, most of the hardware can be made to disappear to create open working spaces when required. The fittings equal the best of those created in the Building Schools for the Future and Primary Capital Partnership programmes.

Where next?

So what are the future challenges? The next one's simple. It’s back to the future for Ophelia, returning to a subject "I used to love the best – robotics and programming”.

“It angers me that someone like education secretary Michael Gove can come along and criticise teachers about ICT without knowing or understanding what some schools have achieved in the last 10 years or more,” she explains. “It’s insulting. But he is welcome  to visit our ICT suite any time and experience ICT the Oakington Manor way.”

Part of Ophelia Vanderpuye’s masters degree in ICT was in artificial intelligence and she loves doing control technology and robotics with her pupils: “They take on any challenge we throw at them, coming out at the end having gone through their problem solving and finding solutions.

"Back in the early 1990s we used to present as a school at the old Acorn User Show using Coco software and LEGO Technics kits as it was one of our specialities. Not many schools were too involved with control technology in those days, but we were designing and building cities, fairgrounds and controlling every aspect. We were also one of the pilot schools for LEGO DACTA NXT when it first came to the UK in 2006. Since then we have continued doing control technology using simulations.”

The move back into robotics was also spurred by the interest among pupils following a control technology unit in ICT. "We have a number of children in Year 5 who have exceptional skills in programming Yenka and Flowol2,” she explains. “After Easter I'll be going back to it in a big way, offering the children the opportunity to build the models then program them, as part of the ICT club that we've run for more than 15 years. It will be just one of the many activities offered by the club.

“The nature of ICT means that teachers like me can use it in a variety of ways to enthuse and motivate the children we teach. The spark that lights a child’s imagination is what all teachers want to achieve. ICT is the perfect medium to do that!”

Conditions for innovation  

  • Don’t be afraid of the technology – we are often afraid in case something goes wrong or we’ll break it. It will not break;
  • Allow yourself time to play – be a child again! Remember how exciting it was when you got that new toy? Have fun learning;
  • Experiment. Trying things out is the only way to see if an idea works. and it opens you up to your own creativity as well as the children’s;
  • A headteacher who is equally innovative, flexible and open to new ideas allowing staff to take ownership of their subject areas and to be experts in their own right;
  • A view that if the new idea inspires the children into learning then it can’t be bad. However, if it doesn’t work then change it – nothing is set in tablets of stone;
  • Be true to yourself about your own skills - ask for help when you need it;
  • Give the children opportunities to lead, offer opinions, share their ideas – ask what they want. It may not always be possible to give children what they want in school because of financial constraints etc. BUT you then have a basis for your innovation and change which can be planned for;
  • Surround yourself with great people who are receptive to change and who can also see the vision.

Sources of inspiration 

  • My mother, who always taught me that I should not let being female limit me to thinking I wasn’t as good as the boys, and never to give up on my desires and dreams;
  • My younger brother Isaac. There has always been sibling rivalry between us but only in terms of which one of us would learn about, or own, the latest gadget first. I always tried to make sure I was the first to show off to him. As we’ve gotten older we still have that rivalry but it’s now over the phone as he lives in Atlanta. He also makes me laugh a lot;
  • My significant other who listens to my whacky ideas and challenges me to think outside of the box;
  • Sir Clive Sinclair, famous in the 1970s and 1980s for his slimline pocket calculator and the ZX80 computer. I remember saving up my pocket money and buying one of the slimline calculators for school and being the envy of my classmates and friends – I must say I didn’t let any of them touch it. I’m sure I can find my first calculator somewhere in my loft, where I am almost certain I would also find the ZX80 or 81. I admired Sir Clive for being so inventive and hoped that I would grow up creating some wonderful gadgets for others like he did. I also loved the idea of his C5 vehicle which I thought I would have been able to afford at the time;
  • Dr Kwamen Kubweza, CEO of the Pan African Research and Applications Group (PARAG) who pioneered the Communal Information Technology Centre (CITC) project in Bronville, Welkom, Free State, South Africa. This project took information technology into township communities, to enable black South Africans to learn and develop new skills, to give them greater access to jobs they would otherwise be unable to do without such training. It was the first of its kind in the Free State in the late 1990s. I was privileged enough to work with Kwamen and other members of the group on this project as a consultant for five years;
  • TED Talk videos – fascinating topics – high interest – very inspirational. I believe that all educators should watch  these videos – they certainly have great ideas that can be taken into the classroom if only as discussion pieces;
  • David Bailey (photographer) - my first love is photography and was my passion long before ICT. David Bailey’s black-and-white photos always spoke volumes to me. His subjects always seemed to tell a much deeper story which almost pulled you into the photograph;
  • Travelling around the world – cultures and histories of other countries have always been a source of inspiration.
  • The children I teach! They always say the unexpected or ask a question that makes you think deeper and see things from their perspective. Their excitement with technology challenges me to continue looking for interesting ways to use technology

More information

Oakington Manor Primary School, Wembley 
@Oakingtonmanor on Twitter 
Oak Mag Network Radio: Sounds of Us    
Celebrity Corner interview with Peter Egan
Guardian article on the Oak Mag Network Radio Network  
NAACE ICT Impact Awards Winners 2012