Sean O'Sullivan

By Sally McKeown
“Hi Sean, do you know how to change the background colour on this?” A pupil, Brian, and Jamie, a new member of support staff at  Frank Wise School, wander into the office of headteacher Sean O’Sullivan (above) to get some help and on-the-spot training. Once they have learned how to put a new layer into Pages and change the colour they go off to develop the title page for the class magazine.

The school achieved Beacon status in 2004 and was designated a Specialist School (SEN) in Cognition and Learning in 2007. It has won several awards including International School and Becta ICT Excellence (runner-up) and obtained an Outstanding Ofsted report in 2007 and 2010. While there are many reasons for a school to do so well, part of the magic of Frank Wise is that technology is threaded through all the school activities in a very natural and intuitive way.

Frank Wise learnersApple favoured by Frank Wise learners for ease of useSean’s great love for AppleMacs started back in the 1980s. "We used an Amstrad for our office functions but the first time we used an Apple we thought, 'This is just so easy'," he says. "Our classroom computers at that time were BBCs but I came across HyperStudio which was brilliant, though not marketed as a special needs product. It was a framework program which let us make all sorts of things, including multimedia CVs.

"A conventional CV was not very interesting for most of our pupils, especially for those who could not read, but they could show people a multimedia CV which had voice clips, and photos which demonstrated achievements and acted as a memory prompt."

Sean, a winner of Becta's ICT in Good Practice award, was a pioneer of podcasting. Early examples focused on local news stories such as a new scanner for the local hospital, a young man who had lost eight stone in weight and a mystery big cat. He used podcasting to develop language and communication skills in meaningful contexts: "I had one child who was almost mute with adults, some who could make a few sounds clearly and others who only experience problems with complex words."

Podcast recordings can be edited and silences removed so it does not matter if someone takes a long time to make a response. Stuttering can be eliminated and the whisperers in the group can have their voices amplified so everyone can hear them. Pupils have models of speech to copy and work with but, more importantly, these models are their own words and sounds.

'iMovie' and digital video a mainstay of the school’s approach to the curriculum

Similarly iMovie and digital video have become a mainstay of the school’s approach to the curriculum. “We can use it for practice activities which we will not store," says Sean. "So children who struggle with speech can have several goes and we can cut the best bits and build a sentence. They can add a voice over anything, which gives variety and motivates them to keep trying.”

“Using slow motion has been a great way to draw attention to a key point. For example, we might roll a toy car down a slope and then do it again on a rougher surface to show the impact of friction – but if a child is looking away the point is lost. We can play it back in slow motion so they really focus on what is on screen.

"Although our pupils have learning disabilities, that does not necessary mean they are slow learners. Sometimes they get stuff really quickly. One boy was editing a clip of himself swimming. It was shorter than the music track he had chosen so he just used copy and paste to make it longer. I was just amazed. It was so intuitive for him”.

Frank Wise SchoolFrank Wise 'a pioneer of podcasting'Perhaps surprisingly for such an advocate for technology Sean is not a fan of government schemes. He explains: "They often take a blanket approach with technology, but we need to know if it solves problems and is right for us. We like to test the water. For example when we first saw digital camcorders we bought just one for the whole school. Each class had its own DV tape and took turns. We tried it out for a while and only when classes were competing to use it did we buy more."

The school found standard interactive whiteboards were not right for them. "We needed a board which was essentially a plasma touch screen which could come right down to the floor so it could be used by pupils who spend part of the day sitting on the floor with their legs stretched out to build muscle tone. We also wanted it to be simple enough for the children to operate it themselves."

Since the government was not supplying boards like that, Sean asked his site manager, Nick, to create one. They found they needed an actuator –  an industrial extending tube used in car factories – and Nick, who is a whizz at engineering and electronics, had to design the brackets. The mountings were produced to their specification by a local company, SKF.

'Learning platforms have done very little for pupils with learning disabilities'

Sean has no plans to adopt a learning platform in the foreseeable future. “The commercial suppliers of learning platforms have done very little for pupils with learning disabilities," he warns. "We have been involved in development but the products are disappointing. Promoted features like the ability to mark homework or do quizzes are irrelevant for us. When companies try to simplify products they often make them babyish, but no less cognitively confusing so then they are wrong on two counts.“

Frank Wise School is now developing work with green-screen technology, letting pupils do news reports for different areas of the curriculum, and using Nintendo Wiis. They have used the Skittle game in numeracy for counting and estimating and used the Wii for fitness training, but they are also having very good results using Nintendo DS recipes with the post-16 group. This has pictures and speech, and is carefully structured so that pupils work independently to produce a meal for themselves or their class.

After podcasting, digital video, multimedia and Wiis you can see that learning platforms lack that essential wow factor. “The next step is to create an app based on our Early Reading Scheme for an iPad,” says Sean. “I don’t know how we will do it yet, but we will.”

Conditions for innovation

  • Sean’s approach is very much, “This looks exciting doesn’t it? Let’s see if it works for us.” He advises:
  • Start with the school’s values. Does it help to celebrate achievements? Is it exciting and stimulating?
  • If software is intuitive pupils just take off with it.
  • Technology needs to be fast reliable and easy.
  • Go for short, intense period of trialling so technology proves its worth.
  • Promote best practice among staff by sharing ideas and ways of using technology.
  • Go for a mixed economy of support and training.
  • Have an open mind for unexpected opportunities.

Sources of inspiration

  • David Baugh – the former ICT adviser in Denbighshire has been instrumental in giving the school an equal voice in the Apple community.
  • Stephen Heppell and Richard Millwood: "I did my MA though Ultralab so Stephen Heppell and Richard Millwood were really important for making me think about first principles of ICT."
  • Adam Burt is light years ahead when it comes to technology. He helped us get into podcasting long before it was fashionable.
  • Terry Waller at Becta for giving us the opportunity to be involved in research and to reach a wider audience.
  • Ian Bean because his work at Inclusive Technology and Priory Woods school. He has always put the interests of the child at the heart of all developments.

More information

Sean O'Sullivan's blog,
Frank Wise School


Sally McKeownSally McKeown is a freelance writer and is an expert in special needs and inclusion