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Ben Pitman-Jones: Blazing a trail in technology

Hands up who bought their child a tablet for Christmas. Or Minecraft for the Xbox? Or Fifa 14 for the PS3? Who among us has never bought a few minutes peace and quiet by handing over an app-laden smartphone? From the toys we choose, to the way we buy and the way we pay, right down to the delivery man with his little hand-held-terminal thingy, technology is the thread that pulls it all together.

Which is something you don’t need to tell Ben Pitman-Jones, the new Year 5 form teacher and self-confessed techno-nerd. An interesting chap is our Mr Pitman Jones. He is possibly the only person in Britain to have done a combined-honours Drama and Computer Science degree. He says that on the drama side, he was mostly interested in sound and lighting, but according to Mr Antrobus, who hears him reading to his class through the wall, he is also up to putting on a great performance. And Mr Pitman-Jones is a keen sportsman, playing hockey for Chippenham and teaching sport at Heywood. Having done a bit of nosy parkering around his form pupils, he also seems to be a very popular teacher of the I’m-a-friendly-chap-but-don’t-bother-trying-to-take-the-mickey variety.

When I talk to him, however, all his focus is on transforming IT education at school. Last term his Coding Club team came in 14th out of 25 at the Lego League Robotics Tournament in Bristol. Impressive when you consider that they have never done anything like this before, and that around half the field was made up of secondary school teams. They had to build and programme a robot fit to meet a series of challenges on the theme of natural disasters – lift a Lego house onto stilts, release trapped water after a tsunami, send a rescue plane off down a zipwire. The children had to present their research into the problems, and were marked on core values such as cooperation and professionalism.

When I spoke to year 5’s Charlie Paterson the week before the competition, he was very excited. I was curious to know how programming a Lego robot compared with playing a video game with cutting edge computer graphics. ‘Doing the programming is better,’ he replied without hesitation. ‘Because you are able to control it.’

Clearly, for the children, all this hi-tech geekery is exciting, fun, challenging even. But to Mr Pitman-Jones’s mind, it is also vital.

‘If you look at what is required these days in any career – finance, medicine, science - technology is at the heart of it. Teaching children how to use technology correctly and responsibly is essential. And not just how to use it, but how it works.’ Brace yourselves, ladies and gentlemen. According to Mr Pitman-Jones, IT is on a par with those core traditional academic strands, literacy and numeracy.

‘We are giving the children a new tool, but they have to learn how to use it. People have an idea that the computer will do it all for them. But it can’t do anything without being told how. Any more than a saw will cut the pieces for a chair without the skill of the joiner.’

In Heywood’s new IT programme, children in Nursery and Reception begin by learning computing fundamentals - finding their way round a file system, using a mouse and a keyboard. Bit by bit, they get exposure to programming, and by Year 1, are learning algorithms. It’s OK. You needn’t humiliate yourselves by admitting you have no idea what that means. I did it for you. So algorithms are coded instructions arranged in sequence to achieve a desired outcome. They are used, say, to programme a washing machine or to set your DVD recorder to record. For the children, it begins with creating computer games using coding programmes such as Scratch and Kodu.

What is perhaps most interesting about this is the way that disciplines overlap. Because, as Mr Pitman-Jones points out, the children have to create something with the technology they are using. And that something might be a maths-based times table game. Or they might be required to put together an instruction manual for their game, and hey presto, they are working on a key literacy skill.

Another area that the children explore is navigating the Internet. Along with that goes online safety, including social networking sites, and avoiding the worst of what cyberspace contains.

‘At school, of course, we have a filtering system,’ says Mr Pitman-Jones, ‘but no software is completely foolproof. You have to prepare the children to use the internet safely from the very beginning, help them to search for information in a way that won’t bring up inappropriate sites, and to understand what to do if they find something they should not see. And they also need to understand that things they upload, the things they say online, they are there forever. So every time they use the Internet at school, we run through the ways they can protect themselves. It’s about being consistent.’

So what’s next? ‘We’ve got millions of miles to go,’ he says. He envisages using technology more creatively, building apps, maybe even using 3-D printers, which children could use to create a chess piece, or indeed anything they like. Apparently NASA has 3-D printers on its space station. They send scans of instrument parts that can then be manufactured on board. ‘It’s so empowering. Think how creative children could be and how they could learn how to put things together.’ 

I ask how typical this sort of thing is in primary schools. Turns out it’s not. ‘Out of all the schools in Wiltshire, you would probably only find two or three with this level of computer technology. There just isn’t the same focus on computer science in other schools.’

It’s a brave new world out there, people. I think I’d rather my children understood it, even if I don’t.