A group of 17-year-olds crowd around the computer ready to surf the Internet for materials to use in a history lesson. But before getting on with trawling the World Wide Web, the students at Meldreth Manor, near Cambridge, have to send an electronic letter (e-mail) to Kimberley, their New Yorker pen-friend, with a few questions such as, "Is your computer working now?" and "How is your family?" This sort of scene is played out with increasing regularity in classrooms across the country, as the world shrinks under the ever tightening web of computer communications. But the difference between the scenario at Meldreth Manor compared with that in other schools is that Pritesh, Jim, Pam and Paul all suffer from a condition that in various degrees of severity affects one in 400 children in this country.
Cerebral palsy has trapped them inside bodies they can control only with difficulty and has robbed many of a voice. they communicate via an automated communication system called Rebus, a pictorial language that uses symbols alongside words. Working alongside a carer or teacher, these youngsters choose exactly what they want to say by blinking, nodding or raising an eyebrow to the appropriate symbol. Now the collection of symbols is available on software and can be converted into words for the Internet. Thanks to voice synthesis software, some children can also listen to what they have written.
Meldreth Manor, a residential school run by the cerebral palsy charity Scope, is devoted to helping its youngsters find ways of expressing themselves. According to headteacher David Banes, exploiting the Internet is an exciting way of putting his students more in touch with the rest of the world.
He says they were aware of the amount of work starting to develop in mainstream education using the Internet. Although he felt technology offered opportunites for children with severe and profound learning difficulties, it wasn't until a sceptic voiced the opinion that the medium was inappropriate for his students, that he decided to act.
That doubting Thomas spurred Mr Banes, who believes, "You can't deny pupils something because you think it might be too difficult - nothing should be written off until it's tried."
Together with the school's IT co-ordinator Richard Walter, Meldreth's staff have established a range of ways to use the Internet and the World Wide Web with small groups of pupils. One involves using a "writing with symbols" program that has allowed them to extend the communication work they were already doing.
The symbols program works by lifting a text file, either from e-mail or a newsgroup (the Net's version of notice boards), and converting it so it shows up as symbols alongside the words, which are then spoken back out loud.
The school has created its own Web site, so students publish their own material on the Net. They can also e-mail people, talk to groups via newsgroups, call up their own news and pictures and research school projects. Youngsters also pursue their own interests: these range from wanting to look at the pages of pop groups such as Oasis and Blur to finding information about their favourite animals.
David Banes remains passionate about the school's involvement in the technology revolution. "We are now able to provide the access that otherwise wasn't possible for special needs pupils," he says. "On top of all this we have been using the multimedia capabilities of the World Wide Web. Some children created a story about Cinderella and we took photographs of them acting out the parts, digitised them and put them on as a multimedia story on our Web page."
After the launch of Meldreth's Web page, details about it were put in "K12 Education Special", a special education newsgroup. The school has since been flooded with replies from people who either have cerebral palsy or work with those who do. In a further attempt to contact a wider audience, information about the school's Web page was also put on some of the mainstream newsgroups. "We have had several replies," says Mr Banes. "The exciting thing about it is, we have no idea who the people are at the other end of the line, but the children are talking to each other. And because they don't know what the range of disability is at the school, and we don't know what theirs are, this has an equalising effect."
The joys of the Internet do not come cheap (the school has spent around Pounds 6,000 on hardware, software and on-line charges over the last 12 months), but Mr Banes has been quick to take advantage of the free megabytes offered by various on-line providers. He first signed up with Research Machines' Internet for Learning because they screen the newsgroups, but also has an account with CompuServe and intends to take up a free one with Microsoft.
All teachers at Meldreth Manor are expected to attend a one-day information technology training course every half-term which the headteacher feels is a necessity.
Although most of the youngsters at Meldreth Manor have some form of access to the Internet, the question is at what level that access will be. They have grasped the idea of e-mail and newsgroups with sound and text, and the use of symbols to support the written work, but there is a much bigger problem with the Web. This is because the information on Web pages, much of it graphics, can't be converted easily into Rebus symbols. However, Mr Banes hopes the launch of Scope's Web page will prompt those involved in information technology and the Internet to look at ways to make the Web accessible.
"We need to change the information technology culture, which is saying at the moment, 'this is what we can do, isn't it wonderful?', to recognising that some features of what contributes to the speed of advance are actually being denied to groups of people," he says.
Meldreth Manor home pages are at http:www.rmplc.co.ukeduwebsitesmeldrethindex.html Meldreth Manor School, Fenny Lane, Meldreth, near Royston, Herts SG8 6LG. Tel: 01763 260771 Scope: http:scope.org.uk.