Handhelds in Feltham - An Evaluation PDF Print E-mail
Written by Nick Peacey on Saturday, 17 March 2007
/girl_handheld.jpgThe Feltham City Learning Centre and Hounslow eLearning asked SENJIT of the Institute of Education, University of London, to undertake an independent evaluation of an experimental project which provided hand-held Personal Digital Assistants (PDAs) to all pupils in Y6 classes in Victoria Junior School.  The experiment took place over the academic year 2005-2006.

The aim of the project was to explore how PDAs can improve standards and raise attainment, particularly in English and Mathematics.

At the time of the January 2006 PLASC census the Year 6 groups in Victoria Junior School included 60 pupils in all. NB This figure had increased to 66 by the end of the spring term. Of these, 9 pupils were recorded as being supported through School Action and 7 pupils through School Action Plus.  3 pupils had statements of special educational needs.


The Feltham City Learning Centre funded the purchase of 75 Dell X50V PDAs and associated equipment using £24,000 of its Department of Education and Skills funding (with a £1000 contribution from Hounslow G&T strand). The City Learning Centre and Gifted and Talented strands form part of Hounslow’s Excellence in Cities programme.

The two class teachers for Y6 implemented the programme.
The school’s ICT co-ordinator and the Headteacher were closely involved in all policy formation relating to the project and in support for its development.

Tony Peaty of the City Learning Centre and Jo Armitage of Hounslow eLearning originated the project and provided advice, facilitation and technical support when needed.

The evaluation: methods

A series of visits took place to monitor and evaluate the progress of the project.  

Discussion with school staff and colleagues from the City Learning Centre to discuss the shape of the evaluation, baseline data and to consider progress as the project moved forward.

Observation of the classes using the PDAs.

Interviews with staff and pupils on how they felt about the experiment.

Discussion with school staff and colleagues from the City Learning Centre on the experiment at the end of its first year.

Exploration with the Headteacher of the end-of-year data for the classes.

Filmed interviews with the two class teachers.

In addition, data on the classes’ progress and attitudes to learning and school from before and after the experiment was examined.   


I found no-one, staff or pupil, who felt that the experiment had been other than successful.


Children interviewed who had had worries about their handwriting found ‘it [the PDA] makes your writing neat’ and greatly appreciated the reduction of anxiety.

Teachers explained that those with poor handwriting, because of fine motor control impairments, could at first not get the PDA to accept what they wrote with a stylus. In a short time, however, they learnt to form the letters properly so that the PDA recognised them. They were then able to print out an elegant fair copy through the transcriber.

The teachers liked the fact that they were able to encourage drafting and re-drafting of writing through the PDAs. The evaluator was able to observe a lesson in which the PDAs were successfully used to encourage the development of chapters and chapter headings for an essay.

Pupils could use games and activities to practise spellings on the PDAs.

Many pupils read the E-books that can be downloaded from the internet and read on the PDAs.  The range of books available was limited: staff were cautious about the appeal of ‘the library’ on offer which was weighted towards Victorian and Edwardian classics for young people such as Black Beauty and the War of the Worlds. However, the pupils interviewed were clear that this was not an issue for them. By the end of the year, the staff felt pupils had been drawn enthusiastically into a genre of reading that they would never have accessed without the motivation provided by the electronic version. ‘It’s opened up a whole new world for the children … they’re all reading E books for half an hour during the morning…’  Teacher.


The use of the PDAs has supported some remarkable learning gains, most strikingly in relation to mental mathematics.   The teachers attribute this to many factors, but specifically to the ability to ‘practise efficiently’. They were able to make appropriate flash games available and motivation increased dramatically.  For example, one teacher observed that a Y5 group in the academic year 2004/5 found practising times tables difficult and uninspiring. In contrast, the Y6 group in 2005-6 found the process of learning tables with the PDAs both clear and motivating. So they kept trying and learned them.  Teachers reported that children who used the PDAs most made the biggest gains over the course of the year.

One teacher told this story:
‘S’. was on the special needs register…he found most areas of the curriculum very difficult…I think the PDA gave him the confidence to feel that he could succeed, especially in the Maths. He became very determined.

In our first mental mathematics test of the year, which was marked out of 20, ‘S’ scored zero.  He was practising on his PDA practically every night. We were able to ‘beam out’ to him personalised games, things that he particularly needed to practise…and  he went on to get a Level 4 at the end of the year.’

Personalised Learning

Staff welcomed the fact that they could select specific aspects of learning for pupils to explore.   This was particularly effective where a pupil needed further practice in an area.  Rather than being set formal homework, for example in Mathematics, the pupil could go home with some games or other activities on their PDA and practise until they were clear about the process they were learning.  

Metacognition: learning to learn

All pupils enjoyed the ‘over learning’, the continuity of practice that is possible in and out of school.  This was also evident at revision times, for example when the pupils were preparing for the national curriculum tests.

The PDAs were seen as cool and personalisable: they were ‘owned’.  Pupils could have the work, games and music they liked on them.  This might be seen as a concern but seems to have had the opposite effect. Children who might otherwise reject many forms of teaching appreciated the status and fun of the PDAs and were drawn into all sorts of formal and informal learning.

All involved agreed that use of the PDAs re-engaged’ some pupils who were not committed to learning before. The teachers expected the novelty value to wear off, but found that it did not.
Teachers reported that the ability to ‘doodle electronically’ in class allowed concentration to be maintained on the task in hand.

The development of responsibility through the home-school contacts and contracts necessary, allowed all pupils to know exactly what they had to do to maintain their valuable PDA and to make sure it is kept securely. This built self-esteem.

It is important to record the important and year-wide gains in general ICT confidence and expertise, which were so embedded, that they could easily have gone unremarked.   Pupils were clearly comfortable with the technology and its many possibilities.

Home-school partnership

Parents quickly became committed to the project.

‘By the end of two meetings every parent was signed up to the PDA project.’ Teacher.

Parents reported added enthusiasm for school among their children and found that they themselves enjoyed collaboration with the school more.

Parents learnt about the PDAs alongside their children which immediately and dramatically changed the home-school relationship. Some pupils reported that their parents’ extended use of the PDA in the evening had left the battery flat!

The shift in relationship was even more apparent in relation to the highly motivated use of the PDAs by pupils at home.  For instance, one mother of a pupil with SEN reported that rather than nagging him to complete his homework each evening; she had to stop him working on the PDA all night.

The need to talk with the school about the PDAs was reported to have allowed other more sensitive issues to be discussed at the same time.

Technical issues

If the PDAs in use with the 2005-6 cohort became discharged pupils lost data. This meant extra work and inconvenience for staff. They not only had to encourage the pupils to be zealous users of the rechargers they all had at home, but also to reinstall data in the machines that ‘went flat’. The change in the 2006-7 programme to more ‘secure’ PDA models that do not lose data when they are discharged has been welcomed.

Pupils and teachers used the PDAs to ‘beam’ documents, games and other activities to one another.  Staff look forward to developing the use of wireless technology and allowing less inhibited data flow round the classroom.
Occasionally there was concern when PDAs were being used for a whole-class activity and some children had no charged PDA available. While it is unreasonable to maintain a large stock of charged and stocked machines for this eventuality it says much for the self-discipline of the pupils that this appears to have been a rare event.

The range of E books available could be extended with benefit. This is part of a wider issue about the preparedness of the companies involved to make resources available for PDAs.

I was assured by staff and pupils that font sizes on the PDA did not bother them.  The classes contain pupils with visual impairments. This phenomenon needs to be further investigated: future plans need to anticipate the inclusion of all impairments.  One pupil told me that she did not write on the screen because she found it too small.

The end-of-year data

We should not place interpretations which cannot be sustained on the data collated at the end of the year. For example, value-added academic gains by individuals or groups over the year cannot normally be unequivocally identified as relating to the use of the PDAs. Indeed, any such interpretations of responsibility for gains might well be seen as unfair to the hard work of the two class teachers in other areas: the Headteacher’s evidence has made it clear that they have spent many additional hours preparing work and supporting their pupils.

But it would be equally unreasonable to ignore the fact that the data overall supports the qualitatively constructed picture above.

Analysis of those areas of the 2005-2006 data for English and Mathematics (the target subject areas for the PDA programme) across Year 6 groups has suggested that progress overall has been good or outstanding.

Detailed examination of individual pupil results supports the contention that a good proportion of individuals, including some of those with SEN, made striking gains.

The Hounslow pupil attitude survey for 2006, when compared in relevant aspects to that of the previous year, shows differences in attitude between the Y6 pupils who left Victoria Junior School in 2006 and their counterparts who left in 2005.

So, for example, the class teachers reported that reading the E books on the PDAs encouraged the pupils to read for fun.  Though it cannot be certain that pupils interpreted the survey question as including reading E books the results show a clear shift in attitude between the Y6 groups.

How often do you read for fun outside school?

2005 Y62006 Y6
Almost every day
2/3 times a day
Once a week
Hardly ever
All respondents made clear how involved the parents became in Y6 school work in 2005-6 as a result of the PDA programme. We might therefore expect a shift in results in the question about parental interest.
My parents ask me how I am doing at school.

2005 Y62006 Y6
Fairly often

The change is substantial.  Fewer than half the 2005 pupils claimed their parents asked about school often or fairly often; in 2006 this rose to 60%. More dramatically, those claiming their parents never asked about school dropped from 17% (that year the Hounslow average for a school was 3% for this question) to 3% (the Hounslow average in 2006 was 2%). 

My lessons are interesting

2005 Y62006 Y6
All lessons7%7%
Most lessons12%32%
Some lessons69%58%
No lessons12%3%

Once again, the picture is one of overall improvement in attitude. The ‘all lessons are interesting’ or ‘most lessons are interesting’ groups have doubled in total; the ‘no lessons are interesting’ group has dropped to 3%.

Finally, the two most ‘feel good’ questions also reflect considerable improvements in pupil feelings about their teachers and their time in school.

I like my teachers

2005 Y62006 Y6
Nearly always16%30%

I am very happy when I am at school

2005 Y62006 Y6
Fairly often


The qualitative evidence.
The qualitative evidence gathered through interviews and observations is clear:
pupils appreciated learning with the PDAs;
parents appreciated their children’s learning with PDAs and learnt with them;
Teachers felt the PDAs had a major role in a wide range of improvements in learning and participation.

The quantitative evidence    
There is good evidence of substantial value-added   gains in English and Mathematics over the past year for the Y6 classes; 
It is also clear that there have been impressive changes in attitudes and participation between the 2005 and 2006 Y6 classes.

PDAs for all or laptops for all
This study has demonstrated many advantages of an approach which supports ‘PDAs for all’, particularly in comparison with a ‘Laptops for all’ approach. Compared to laptops, the PDAs are cheaper, much lighter (not an insignificant consideration for young children and those with physical disabilities), more part of the mobile phone technology familiar to pupils and parents and easier to carry undetected. 

The last point is important.  An evaluation by the author of a laptop introduction programme in Ireland showed that schools in inner-city areas felt most uneasy about letting pupils take the machines home because of fears of their being stolen en route.


BECTA’s two research summaries (BECTA 2003) suggest the factors that enable or hinder the use of ICT in education. As will be seen from the table below the PDA project has been established in an ideal setting.

Victoria Junior School PDA project 2005-6
Leadership and planning
Leadership and careful planning available from school and CLC leaders
Personal confidence in ICT, time and access to ICT resources
Both the key players are comfortable with ICT; one has particular interest in technical aspects e.g. of downloading material from the internet
Collaboration with schools and the community

A remarkable  example of collaboration  between  a school and its community of parents
Professional (informal and formal) development
Professional development available through the CLC support
Lack of technical faults and the quick remedying  of any that do occur
Equipment generally robust, but staff prepared to give time to putting matters right if need be.
Willingness to change among teachers
Teachers committed to innovation

Given this analysis, we may ask whether the project is replicable in other schools that are not so favourably placed.

In my judgement, it could be replicated with success and without real difficulty.  Anyone establishing it would need to be mindful of the factors identified by Becta above and particularly:

the need for users to be able to find and download resources

the need for technical support to be quickly available if the teachers concerned did not possess the expertise.


Teachers, pupils, parents and everyone else involved agree that the classes’ work with PDAs has had a strong motivating effect generally, with startling developments in enthusiasm for learning and attainment in some previously disaffected pupils.

The PDAs have been ‘owned’ by pupils as personal learning tools: among other observed results, they appreciate the way they can personalise the devices.  It is clear from the evaluation that they feel comfortable with the technology and have gained a significant level of insight into new ways in which they can learn and take responsibility for their own learning.

The PDAs allow teachers to create and make use of a wide variety of independent study tasks which then become universally and conveniently available for pupils wherever they are studying.

The PDAs have been valuable for pupils with individual needs. For example, they have allowed those who are concerned about their recording and handwriting to make, draft and share versions of work for their class assignments.    

The project has effectively demonstrated the possibilities of wireless technology in the classroom: ideas for learning have been swiftly passed between individuals for immediate use. Evidence from respondents and observations suggests that this is part of the development of peer-supported learning encouraged by the introduction of the PDAs.

Parents have been supportive throughout. This has been demonstrated by the high level of attendance at information evenings and the impressive day-to-day commitment to helping pupils maintain the PDAs charged and ready for use.

This is part of an unplanned benefit of the project: it has enhanced home-school communication with Y6 parents and carers generally. Respondents told us that the introduction of the PDAs has provided a ‘bridge’ around which conversations on many aspects of pupils’ progress and participation in school can be structured.

This has been a most carefully constructed and monitored project, which has every chance of replicability in other schools and settings.

Given the consistency of the quantitative end-of-year results with the qualitative data gathered, it is hard not to accept the view of all respondents that, while other factors were obviously involved, the PDAs had a major role in transforming learning and teaching, and thus achievement, in Y6 classes during the academic year 2005-6.  

The staff and pupils of Victoria Junior School have achieved a huge amount with slightly dated machines. A more extensive classroom trial of the new generation of PDAs is likely to show even more powerful effects.

Nick Peacey

The term ‘parents’ throughout this document refers to ‘parents and/or carers’.
For example, the case study of S above suggests that value-added gains in his mental mathematics should be definitely attributed to the use of his PDA.
Victoria Junior School’s analysis of the data.
LB Hounslow Student attitude survey (Year 6) 2005 and 2006


Nick Peacey is currently co-ordinator of the Special Educational Needs Joint Initiative for Training (SENJIT), Institute of Education, University of London. He recently returned to this post from a one year secondment as Principal Manager, Equal Opportunities and Access at the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority.


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