Crispin Andrews looks at how staff at two children’s centres are reaping the benefits of information communication technology

According to ICT adviser Harriet Price it is no longer simply a case of thinking in terms of the benefits that an ICT-rich educational experience brings to children. She insists that technology is now such an important part of children’s everyday lives that a learning environment without it would be completely out of touch with their own realities.

A former primary school ICT coordinator, Harriet now works in Cambridgeshire as an ICT adviser. Two of the early years settings she supports, Histon and Homerton children’s centres have recently received the prestigious ICT accreditation mark from Becta – the British Educational Communications and Technology Agency.

Everyday use of ICT
‘Staff at both centres have really got to grips with using ICT as an everyday part of their practice,’ says Harriet who supports staff at both centres by leading training sessions, modelling lessons, making sure the necessary software and hardware is available and ready for children and adults to use, while also helping staff develop their own ICT skills. ‘Staff now use ICT for everything from planning, to enhancing teaching and play; not to mention making the centre’s administration more efficient. They have really taken ownership of the technology in an enthusiastic and efficient way.’

Harriet Price believes that both Homerton and Histon children’s centres should be extremely proud of what they have achieved in, and through, ICT. At both settings, a wide range of technology – from interactive whiteboards to digital cameras, remote controlled cars and programmable toys – are part of children’s everyday experiences. Harriet recalls one particular teacher at Histon turning their Pixie – a programmable toy – into a drawing tool by taping on pens – so that when it moved it made marks and patterns. ‘The children were fascinated that the Pixie was a rectangular shape but made circular patterns when they directed it across a large sheet of paper placed on the floor. This provided an opportunity to explore the language of direction and number and to start predicting how far the toy might need to move and in what direction, to make different patterns.’

Harriet adds that ICT is a fantastic motivator and enabler, but that it is necessary to choose only the technology that will enhance learning and not to simply use it for its own sake. ‘Children are fascinated by pressing buttons and making things work. Using appropriate technology provides opportunities to develop independent learning skills.’

Enhancing children’s creativity
At Homerton, a box of defunct technology equipment was placed outside near some cardboard boxes, plastic containers and other modelling equipment. Before long children were adding the battered old keyboards and computer ‘mouses’ to their models – making all manner of interesting spaceships and robots. Such experiences could easily be the focus for creative learning. Without a specific stimulus, many children find it difficult to generate their own ideas from imagination alone. But when the basis of a role-play, story or explanation comes from something they have made and seen, it becomes easier for them to think of ideas and to link events together. ‘What is your spaceship called?’, ‘Who flies it?’, ‘Where is it going?’, ‘What might it meet on the way?’, ‘When the spaceship lands, what is the place like?’. Questions like these can help unlock children’s imaginations and develop their creativity.

Similarly the use of ICT helps remove the boundaries between learning and experiences that take place in home and at school. Children might not be able to take home their model robots or spaceships, but they can take a digital camera picture, print it out and, later, discuss what they did with their family. Out in the garden or at a friend’s house they might even be able to come up with some more exciting adventures for their intrepid spaceship crew or devise obstacles for their hapless robot to overcome.

Using ICT to enhance home/setting links
At Homerton the concept of merging home/setting experiences has been taken further by the trialling of a new learning platform. A learning platform, a system used to deliver and support learning and teaching, usually combines several functions, such as organising, mapping and delivering curriculum activities, with the facility for learners and teachers to have a dialogue about the activity, all via ICT. Harriet Price gives one example of how the Homerton system enhances learning, recalling how one girl who had recently been a bridesmaid at relative’s wedding wanted to share her experiences with classmates but of was not allowed to bring such a precious item as her dress into the centre itself. Harriet says ‘We could have asked the child to just tell the story, but many of the other children might not have realised what she was talking about, let alone possess the necessary experiences to be able to visualise their friend in her bridesmaid dress.’

This is where the learning platform came into its own. At home the youngster dressed up in her special dress, had photos taken and uploaded on to ‘her-space’ and when at school was able to access the photos on a computer and share them with the rest of the class. The other children asked her questions about the dress and the day and finally a comment from the girl herself was uploaded on to ‘her-space’ next to the photos. Once home again she could log on and show her family what she had been doing at school. For both the little girl and her classmates it was a real-life speaking and listening activity – based around something one of them had experienced and all of them could see. Again the scope for developing the creative process through role play, story or even drawing is self-evident and once again ICT enhances and extends the possibilities of learning across the curriculum.

Building children’s self-esteem
‘Digital photography can also boost a child’s self-esteem, celebrate children’s interests, cultures, beliefs, challenge their thinking and help provide personalised resources,’ says Harriet Price. ‘Children can capture images and see them through the display in the camera, they can take photographs of things they like and don’t like; photograph their friends and be photographed themselves. Often quiet and withdrawn children can smile spontaneously as they see themselves in photographs and be encouraged to speak in a familiar group.’

Homerton Children’s Centre website
The website, produced by Harriet Price with Homerton Children’s Centre, provides early years practitioners with a wealth of tools to audit their ICT provision along with supporting documents and examples to help staff plan for and develop ICT in their own setting. To support practitioners in developing ICT in the Early Years Foundation Stage there is also a resources section that includes training materials, recommendations for software and hardware, planned ICT experiences and examples of uses of ICT. Each ICT resource is supported by a wealth of ideas and information in the form of word documents, PowerPoint presentations and short video extracts. A range of training courses are also available and already two conferences have been held in Cambridgeshire, to which practitioners from all over the country have come to access advice, networking opportunities, seminars and keynote speeches from leading experts.

‘To make a real difference it can’t be simply one or two experts or interested practitioners using ICT, it has to be everyone within the setting,’ Harriet Price says. ‘People’s confidence to try new things increases as they gain new skills; only then can you start challenging staff to make better use of technologies across all areas of learning and really ensure ICT becomes embedded in everyday practice.’

Community use of ICT resources
At both Homerton and Histon all aspects of the work of the centre have been enhanced by ICT. Family workers now use newly gained word processing and desktop publishing skills to produce newsletters, posters and communications with local people. At Histon one worker took a group of parents from the local Traveller community to a nearby library where she helped the group use the internet to complete the theory part of their driving tests. In the foyers at both centres a PC with full internet access and a number of easily usable on-screen guides is available for members of the public to use. At Homerton an internet café for parents and children has been set up. Here, while parents surf the internet for information about local services and other areas of interest, children as young as two use laptops on low tables, and technological toys on the floor. Harriet Price comments: ‘It’s a very exciting space. Parents, carers and children are all thoroughly involved. Adults help each other with their own skills and those new to computers work alongside their friends who show them how to set up email or to search online for things that they need or which interest them. It’s very informal and gives parents and carers a chance to ask about technology both for themselves and for their children without the constraints of a more directed training session.’

Harriet Price urges schools and early years settings to make their use of ICT purposeful: to identify needs and priorities then research ways in which technology can be used to most effectively meet these demands. ‘ICT must be a tool for learning not just a discrete area in itself, something that enhances the capacity of a setting to provide high quality experiences for all our young children.’

ICT accreditation mark The Becta ICT mark is awarded only after a school or early years setting has been through Becta’s self-review framework. This provides a route for assessing and improving the use of ICT and is designed to assist headteachers and managers to take a holistic approach and to benchmark performance against established best practice. The framework is an online tool that provides a series of statements based around these eight aspects of ICT provision:

  • leadership and management    
  • curriculum
  • learning and teaching        
  • assessment
  • professional development    
  • extending opportunities for learning
  • resources            
  • impact on pupil outcomes.

While primarily a diagnostic tool, the self review framework in the hands of a thorough and creative practitioner can be used to inform future endeavours, improve quality and ultimately, raise standards. When using it, the fundamental questions for practitioners to ask themselves are ‘How well are we doing?’ and ‘How can we do better?’

For each of the eight strands there are five threshold statements graded from levels 1 (good) to 5 (inadequate) and staff choose the one that best describes their current level of provision. Each aspect of each strand requires similar judgements to be made and the framework is considered by Becta to be an unambiguous process for identifying strengths and weaknesses in current ICT deployment and use, as well as a way of highlighting key priorities for future investment. ‘The award of an ICT Mark is recognition that a school has successfully embedded ICT across the whole school. It is clear evidence of good practice which a school should proudly promote,’ enthuses Philippa Lee, Becta’s head of institutional frameworks.