Christine Jack, at the NGFL Awards, finds that ICT is anything but boring in North East schools
Schools from across the North East came together at the Northern Grid ICT in Education Awards over the summer to celebrate their use of technology to provide exciting and innovative learning opportunities for their pupils.

Earlier this year the media reported how "boring" ICT lessons are and now there's is a national debate about how ICT should be taught. But schools in the North East would never agree that the teaching of ICT is boring.

The Northern Grid awards offer the best of these schools the opportunity to show just how much better education is now they have access to a wide range of new technologies and the benefits they bring. They are a fantastic way for children and adults to showcase their work.

The regional event gives pupils a real buzz and a sense of belonging to the "real world" where they are competing with other schools on similar projects. The children really enjoy the exhibition of all the shortlisted schools, seeing what other winners have been doing so they can report back to their classmates in school. Younger pupils are particularly proud of the fact that they are in an award ceremony that acknowledges secondary students and grown-ups alongside their own efforts.

With pupils of all ages represented, entries used an incredible range of technologies and practice - films, animations, games, music or computer programs created by pupils. At St Mary’s Primary school 6-year-olds were inspired by the work of David Hockney who has used iPads to create art work. Their use of the same technology saw St Mary’s win the Under-7s Art category.

ICT "able to bring the world" to village pupils

Some of the best entries used technology for communication and collaboration, including video-conferencing, learning platforms or blogs. Communications technology is used to record work that can then be kept, discussed, reviewed in class or assemblies, shared with families or published to the world. A number of children taking part have family serving abroad in the armed services, or grandparents who have emigrated but they can still keep in touch. It works the other way too; the Northern Grid judges visited schools where pupils seldom left their own village but ICT was able to bring the world to them.

A special needs unit from Dormanstown Primary School used its TV studio as a vehicle for performing the Christmas play. Among the challengers facing these children are poor working memories, diagnoses of autism and ADHD, as well as significant learning, social, and communication difficulties. So learning lines for a school play as well as attempting to act was never going to be an easy task. The TV studio enabled them to produce a play that was informative, interactive and fast-paced, with scenes alternating between news reports and drama in the hall to tell the story of the nativity.

Two teachers nominated by their local authorities were recognised as outstanding practitioners. Ellen Johnson and Dave Cookson are both committed to ensuring that their schools and pupils benefit from the best that technology has to offer, including how it can give them a voice and independence. Both have recently reviewed the ICT curriculum in their schools to make sure it is relevant and exciting.

The most prestigious award is the Overall Excellence category. Northern Grid always invites external judges to visit shortlisted schools and this year Merlin John and Pat Hughes from Northern Grid’s broadband partner BT visited four exceptional schools. They were deeply impressed by the innovation, thoughtfulness and commitment to teaching and learning that was demonstrated by all of the schools. All Saints School in Stockton and Whitecliffe Primary School in Redcar and Cleveland were the winners. One is a new build benefiting from the latest equipment the other has a much older building. 

Determined teachers matter more than the latest equipment

These two schools reflected what the judges found in all of the entries. It doesn’t matter how much funding schools have, whether they have the latest equipment or are doing the best they can with much older kit. It’s the people that matter, the teachers that are determined to make sure pupils can access the best learning experiences possible and who recognise that technology is an essential tool in making that happen.

"The school visits for the NGFL Awards were pure pleasure, a real privilege," commented Merlin John. "All the schools we visited had outstanding features. We loved the way the school culture at All Saints used technology to ensure that young people understood exactly where they were with their learning and what they needed to achieve their goals – it demonstrated the care and commitment that lies behind true personalisation.

"We also loved the way that the Whitecliffe Primary School refused to allow funding or geography to prevent the kinds of innovation that engage their children. Amazon Kindles were an extremely popular tool for supporting reading both at school and at home, despite the difficulty of managing technology that comes with support designed for consumers. (Have you ever tried to communicate in a meaningful way with anyone at Amazon?)

"And if anyone out there even half believes politicians' propaganda about former school capital programmes, they should visit Jesmond Gardens Primary School (highly commended) in Hartlepool. This has to be the loveliest primary school I have ever visited, and the most sensitively designed. It's a credit to the whole community and validates the massive efforts that were invested in transforming learning as part of the Primary Capital Programme (and Building Schools for the Future) which was scrapped by education secretary Michael Gove MP."

The awards are a valuable opportunity for schools to share experiences and ideas and it is wonderful to see the staff and pupils enjoying their trip to such an exciting event. But that is just part of the story. Now the event is over, these schools, through the awards website, are already helping other schools, and many will go on to be recognised as Northern Grid Leading Schools, sharing best practice through regional events and networks. By recognising their success we can support others to make sure their ICT provision is just as interesting. 

More information 

Christine Jack is eLearning Manger at the Northern Grid for Learning, supporting schools in the North East to use learning technologies in innovative and effective ways.
She is @jackcl on Twitter

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