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E-mails reach out to truants

JAPAN

Japan's teachers are hoping to lure truant children back to the classroom using e-mail and multimedia technology.

The "Nintendo" generation, while more comfortable in the virtual world than their parents, are less keen on the reality of school - figures just released, show that 19,000 primary pupils and 75,000 middle-school students truanted in 1996. This was a rise of 15.5 per cent on the previous year and the fifth consecutive increase.

With financial support from the education ministry, seven local authorities are now trying to reach truants with computers at home.

Teachers and educational advisers keep up an e-mail correspondence with the truants. At one middle school in Fukuoka Prefecture teachers sometimes hold video conferences with the children using their government-sponsored multimedia PCs.

The correspondence in Fukuoka began four months ago with students responding to questions about their well-being. Now their teachers plan to send lessons to the students over a modem.

So far, says the ministry, the feedback has been positive and it will continue to fund the experiment for seven municipalities in Fukuoka, Tokyo, Gifu and Wakayama prefectures.

"Truants have trouble talking with others. We hope communication through e-mail will help them find a way to re-enter society," said a Wakayama official.

This lenient approach stems from teachers' fears that bullying and the pressure to succeed are driving pupils out. Bullied students who threaten or commit suicide are all too often headline news.

The Japan teachers' union said last year that students have the right, although technically unlawful, to skip school. It added that it was important for teachers to allow children who are suffering mentally to stop attending classes.

The work-at-home scheme is the latest attempt by the education ministry to kick-start the use of multimedia in schools. Business leaders have often criticised the government for failing to develop this area and say Japan's students lack creativity because of it.

Despite its reputation as a technologically-advanced nation, Japan's schools lag far behind the West in computer take-up. The ministry has allocated nearly 3 billion yen (pound;13 million) this year for promoting IT in education. Projects include linking schools via fibre-optic networks and developmental projects on software designed for school use.

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