Today, Bolton – tomorrow, the world.
Ask anyone in the education world which is the most technologically advanced state school in the country, and their answer is the same: Bolton’s Essa Academy, which has undergone a technological revolution envied by schools across Britain.
On the face of it, many might consider the Lancashire town an unlikely spot to herald one of the biggest revolutions in learning the state education system has seen in decades.
Essa is a 900-pupil 11 to 16 school, taking most of its pupils from disadvantaged communities in the town. Its predecessor was deemed to be a failure by Ofsted, but it is now flourishing, after a remarkable shake-up in the way pupils are learning.
Every pupil has their own iPod Touch, which they keep with them day and night. The gadget helps them to do their homework and gives them the opportunity to email their teachers with questions whenever they like. While some tutors set aside a specific time slot to answer pupils’ queries, others will fire an answer back within 10 or 15 minutes.
Teachers have their own iPads on which they can create mini-textbooks for their subjects, which it is hoped will save the school money in the short term and eventually become a resource for others.
Institutions from the UK and overseas are flocking to Essa’s door to see if they can learn from its experience. Even some of the country’s independent schools have paid a visit, acknowledging that they are falling behind technologically.
The gadget revolution is all down to Abdul Chohan, a chemistry teacher at the school’s former failing predecessor. He is now one of four directors – in old parlance, deputy heads – at Essa.
Mr Chohan, who had experience with Glaxo pharmaceuticals as a researcher before turning to teaching, is convinced that his pupils will need 21st-century skills when they set out to find work. He also believes that too much attention is focused on exams rather than developing life skills.
He is particularly scathing about the way some schools have introduced new technology. «Thousands of pounds has been spent in schools and used really unwisely,» he says. «Teachers are really good at doing the wrong things well. For instance, they used to have a blackboard and now they have an interactive whiteboard – but they still stand in front of the class pointing to it as if it was their old blackboard.»
Pupils at the school are understandably enthusiastic about their new way of learning, but 12-year-old Maia Delaney, who has been there for six months, admitted she found it «a bit scary» when she first arrived. «I didn’t know a lot about technology,» she says. «I didn’t want to look stupid in front of people I didn’t know.»
She adds: «I soon discovered some of my friends were terrified as well. We helped each other out and helped the teachers out sometimes, too. We take it [the iPod Touch] home with us and we do our work and research at home in the evening.»
The fact that pupils can be continually in touch with their teachers is a crucial advantage of the new system, Mr Chohan points out. «If there’s something they want to know, why should they have to wait until the school gates open at 9am in the morning?» he says.
The school may believe that an overemphasis on exams is wrong, but there is no denying that the new method of learning has acted as a catalyst in improving results. Last year every pupil achieved five A* to C grade passes at GCSE, compared with 40 per cent previously.
Essa’s success is evident in the way it is attracting parents who shied away from the former comprehensive. Ironically, the school’s principal, Showk Badat, can empathise with them – he was born and raised in Bolton and his parents refused to send him to the school because of its poor reputation.
He was working as the head of another academy in Nottingham when he saw an advert for the job of principal. «It seemed like fate,» he says.