Macs are essential to critical work conducted by New Rush Hall School in Ilford, Essex, a special school for children with behavioural, emotional and/or social difficulties that works to help them manage their behaviour better so they can return to mainstream schooling.

The school teaches up to 72 children aged five to 16, many of whom have been permanently excluded from their previous schools for disruptive behaviour. Two of the school's current intake are just five years old.

School head, John d’Abbro, told Macworld: "We began a strong relationship with Apple about five years ago, and have been continuing to develop this, including giving Key Stage 4 pupils MacBooks and iPods."

D'Abbro is an influential figure in the world of special needs learning, and eventually succeeded in convincing Becta to engage in an extensive survey of the impact Macs, digital learning and creativity can have on pupil attainment. Apple, Canon and KudlianSoft also supported the project.

Eleven schools were included in the survey, including New Rush Hall. Becta is expected to release the final findings at giant UK iCT in education technology event, BETT, in January next year.

Really motivated

The headteacher explains: "They are finding that this really works for these youngsters. They are really motivated. I think there's an angle to claim the usability of the Mac is part of this, the seamlessness of use is part of the process, from a psychological point of view."

By engaging in creative projects - using iMovie or creating podcasts on a Mac, for example - children are immediately involved in using technologies with which they are familiar in a setting which encourages group learning and sociability - immediately addressing a key educational need for excluded children

"It's because our children aren't able to make relationships at first. But learning and using Apple's easy-to-use Macs helps the children feel successful," d'Abbro explains. 'That feeling helps them feel empowered, and is part of the process of making them begin to forge relationships again."

The head explains this claim has been borne out at the other 10 schools, proving digital learning can be both good therapy and complementary to other teaching.

"My agenda is about why we can't bring more digital creativity into teaching," d'Abbro explains. "What to me is really core is that digital creativity is personalised, and that's what the outcome from the pilot will be claiming."

Improved attendance

When the school began giving children laptops to take home with them, d'Abbro was astonished by the results. "We found attendance climbed, attainment improved (and continues to do so). I think it's a no-brainer, so now we ensure every child has access to a laptop."

The teacher also confirmed that many parents of children with behavioural difficulties who have been part of the school now say their child's behaviour has turned around.

D'Abbro believes this is because children - used to using all the latest technology at home - suddenly find they are using similarly advanced technologies in class, easing feelings of dissatisfaction.

But the key element to the scheme is trust. Children suddenly feel the desire to do as they are expected in order to get hold of and retain access to technological items they already respect.

In answer to those who slam schemes in which children with such problems are being given access to the most innovative technology, critics who see the stick of discipline as the only answer, d'Abbro responds:

Saving thousands

"Every time we save a child from jail or a nervous breakdown, we're saving the country thousands of pounds, though I don't think you can put a financial price on some things. There's a child who had problems reading, and I promised him an iPod if he managed to achieve a reading level of 11 years. I was aked if I could justify that, I said if I can spend £50 to convince a child to read, then it's money well spent, as he's more likely to achieve more in his adult future as a result."

"I don't think any of the kids I work with chose the start in life they got. And we can ameliorate that start by supplying good kit and interesting learning envirionments. Society gets the children it deserves; our children represent us. Anything we can do to make kids feel better about themselves without making other people feel bad is a success to me."

Macs are essential kit to empowering the children of New Rush Hall, d'Abbro adds: "The way all the software integrates boosts learning and involvement. Tools like iLife, which lets you combine the totality of your life's experience into one experience, such as uploading photos in iPhoto, or video into iMovie, email, and more - that you can achieve all of this within one easy-to-use process makes for richer learning,"

d'Abbro is so convinced that Macs supersede Windows-based systems for the enablement of learning, he said: "I'm absolutely convinced Macs are superior to PCs. There are some things PCs can do, but there's nothing I can't do on my Mac.:

Apple's cool factor, the relative reliability of the machines and the lack of viruses are also contributing factors to the success of the platform. Apple's ease-of-use also means teachers can focus on what they are trying to do on a project, rather than wasting time figuring out how to achieve things.

"We're doing things learning wise that are pushing the boundaries in some ways, and it's so much easier to achieve this on a Mac," d'Abbro adds.

Most to learn

Teachers, not children, have the most to learn when using technology. The modern generation of digital natives are often streets ahead when it comes to using new solutions, d'Abbro concedes - but there's a silver lining, he adds.

"Some staff have really struggled (in using computers), while youngsters are more empowered than them. But, in the context of a school that's dealing with children with behavioural difficulties, getting teachers to learn from the kids and kids to learn about learning from the teachers is a positive outcome in itself."

"I'm happy to say that an integral part of our strategy is the use of Macs. Yes, relationships are everything, but Macs are an essential tool."

Putting it into perspective for teachers and children at New Rush School, d'Abbro sets the scene: "There's you and there's me and also the Macs, as learning tools."