Maureen McTaggart visits the Children's Hospital School at Great Ormond Street
Under the watchful eye of Jenny, the classroom assistant, Hannah mixes together the ingredients for muffins – sugar, flour, eggs, milk and lemon rind. Soon the mixture is ready for the oven and the mess is cleared up. So what’s the big deal you might ask?
The five-year-old learner, clad in chef’s hat and apron, is sitting up in bed and iChat on her Apple MacBook is connecting her to 17 other similarly-clad students doing the same thing in a classroom five floors below. Intersperse with a few feeding tubes, the odd dialysis machine, wheelchair and crutches and the picture becomes clear – we’re in hospital.
This is the Children’s Hospital School at Great Ormond Street (GOSH) where some of the most seriously ill youngsters in Britain (and from overseas) are treated. And today Mark Lech, chef at East India Sports and Public Schools Club, is delivering a cookery lesson for the students, whose ill health means they are unable to attend their usual school.
Although Hannah’s illness means she can’t physically join her colleagues in the classroom for the Ready Steady Cook-type activity, the school’s wholehearted adoption of ICT, and Apple Macs in particular, means she doesn’t miss out.
“The focus of the school is in getting young people down into the school room if they are well enough, otherwise we go to their bedside,” explains John Sosna, one of the school’s assistant headteachers. “The school’s network, which extends throughout the hospital and connects to the internet via the Camden Grid for Learning, provides a raft of motivating key stage appropriate learning resources, materials and links.”
Staff at GOSH use ICT very intensely across the curriculum that according to John Sosna they try and enrich “as much as possible because, in a hospital setting, young people need as much enjoyment as possible.” Furthermore they say it is vital for linking with the young patients’ home-school teachers and school learning platforms for getting information in a timely fashion to aid continuity of education.
“Completing their own schoolwork is obviously a priority and that can sometimes make young people quite anxious,” says John Sosna. “They don’t want to fall behind so normality is really important. We employ two pupil liaison officers who make all those home-school links and get all the information from the home schools – and relevant information from the medics – so the teachers can work most effectively with the pupils.”
The school’s computers are 98 per cent Macs and there is an extensive wireless network that, says Sosna, “runs 24/7/365”. In the adjoining Children’s Centre, which is also run by the school, there are Xbox games consoles and large plasma screens all hooked up to the internet. Back in the main schoolroom they have StoryPhones , EasiSpeak microphones, a small ICT suite, Promethean whiteboards, Lapsafes, Flip video cameras, iPods and there are plans that, by next term, teachers will have class sets of iPads to use with pupils. In addition learners are encouraged to bring in their own laptops that, after security clearance, can be attached to school’s network and the London Grid for Learning.
In fact the many benefits of ICT are fully exploited. All around the hospital corridors monitor screens publicise what goes on in the classroom, putting learning information at the fingertips of every one the 1,500 or so children who use the school every year.
GOSH, a foundation "special school" according to local authority classification, has 12 teachers and a number of high-level teaching assistants (who are expected to have the requisite ICT experience). And due to the hospital’s specialism, it’s one of the UK’s largest hospital schools with teachers working on pretty much all the wards, plus a mile up the road at University College Hospital where they manage another two purpose built classrooms. All sites are linked via the wireless network.
The school receives some charity funding for technology and, thanks to the e-Learning Foundation’s support, every school age child in the dialysis unit is equipped with an Apple laptop so children can keep in touch with home schools, friends and families and take part in lessons (when appropriate) while receiving treatment, or catch up with their mates online. Facebook and other networking sites are blocked during school hours, but are available before school starts, when it finishes and at weekends.
Video-conferencing is also an integral part of the GOSH learners’ experience, but is not always just what the doctor ordered. “We run quite a few VC sessions on a weekly basis but it is very hard to give too much advance notice because it all depends on the availability of the pupil/patient concerned,” explains John Sosna. “Sometimes we have everything set up only to find that the patient is too sick, too busy with medical procedures or too dosed up with medication to participate.”
Despite these practical problems, everyone who works in the school are passionate about their jobs.
“It can be stressful, but it's also hugely rewarding,” says John Sosna. “Hospital schools have a real part to play - it's so important for the kids in terms of normality, continuity, progress and achievement”.