It is lunchtime at St Mary's Church of England Primary in Folkestone, and 20 children sit engrossed at computers. Suddenly a young voice pipes up, eager to share a discovery: "Look, Miss - we did this in maths the other day, didn't we? And now we can do it again in GridClub!"
Initiated and funded by the Department for Education and Skills (DFES), GridClub (which has now been extended to Scotland, see right) is designed to help 7 to 11-year-olds have fun pursuing their interests online. And, as the keen youngster in Kent was quick to recognise, it also acts as a fun way to explore the curriculum, in and beyond school.
The focus is the website at www.gridclub.com, which works on two levels. Schools that register can recruit pupils as GridClub members. That opens the door to a range of clubs covering interests such as sports, music, puzzles or art, plus the chance to chat with other members - all in a secure environment monitored by professional mediators. Armed with their own password, young GridClubbers can log on at school, at home, and anywhere with an internet connection.
But the site also includes a wealth of teaching and learning resources which any visitor can use, all designed to support the national curriculum.
"It is fantastic," says Colette Cotton, ICT co-ordinator at St Mary's, which piloted GridClub in the lead-up to its launch in January 2001. "The children are constantly asked for their opinions and ideas, so they are involved and motivated. They feel it is theirs, not something adults have created."
Her enthusiasm is echoed by Georgia, St Mary's pupil and GridClub President, elected in an online vote. "GridClub is fun, and it also helps with school," she says. "I talk in the chatroom and have written articles for debates about school issues - bullying and whether sweets should be allowed in school."
Cotton runs three lunchtime sessions every week for members - one session each for Years 4, 5 and 6. She believes one of GridClub's main strengths is its emphasis on security. GridClub is hosted on Oracle's Think.com, a secure website designed specially for children's communities, and GridClub lesson plans help teach pupils how to protect their personal safety online.
She draws comfort from the professionalism of the club's mediators. "Recently one pupil wrote something which wasn't particularly suitable and within an hour a mediator had phoned, suggesting I look at it. I was amazed at the support behind the scenes."
Cotton makes use of the publicly-available resources in her classes. She says: "The geography section is out of this world. The history time-tunnel is fantastic, and the children love using Fact Gadget to research."
Winner of three educational technology awards, GridClub is run by three partners: Channel 4 television, which manages the project, provides media expertise and commissions content, educational internet consultancy Intuitive Media, which manages the website and builds and runs the clubs, and software company Oracle, which created Think.com. Channel 4 broadcasts an accompanying series of children's TV programmes called What If?.
Intuitive Media's Bob Hart stresses the benefits of using GridClub at home:
"At school, there are still huge limitations on the amount of time children can spend on computers," he says. "Even today, after millions of pounds of National Grid for Learning money has been spent, they are lucky to get 20 minutes once a week. To be part of an online community you need more than that. At home, a child might be able to spend an hour online, get completely involved and make a meaningful contribution."
To endure as a home resource, GridClub must continue to compete for youngsters' attention with a growing number of entertainment websites. It plays strongly on the fun angle to draw children in, using labels such as "Shape Up" and "Tell Tales" rather than maths and English.
Schools register for GridClub by completing and posting a form available at the GridClub website. Hart says: "At first, registration was quite involved, as we wanted to make absolutely sure we were protecting the children. Recently we have been making it more simple. Most of it can now be done online, and mediators are on hand to help."
GridClub Scotland, a partnership between Learning and Teaching Scotland, 4Learning, Intuitive Media and Oracle, has been endorsed and funded by the Scottish Executive Education Department, writes Eleanor Caldwell.
This initiative is for 7 to 11-year-olds (5-14, Levels B-E). Children can encourage their schools to register free by downloading details from the site. Their online safety is guaranteed since the site upholds all aspects of the Scotland Personal Safety on the Internet guidelines.
The main GridClub site is open to all, while the site's clubs are accessible only by registered children. Two full-time teacher advisers in Scotland will mediate club activities. A "bad language tool" censors unsuitable correspondence.
The site's Grown Ups section offers extensive information on the curriculum of particular interest to parents. Key questions on the extended curriculum are answered and include contact details to get SEED documents such as Sex Education - Guide for Parents and Carers and Health Education Board leaflets on bullying.
Registration to GridClub gives schools automatic membership of the international online learning community Think.com.
Helpline: 020 7306 5568
Bridget Somekh, Professor of Educational Research at Manchester Metropolitan University's Institute of Education, is currently leading an independent evaluation of GridClub for the DFES.
Conclusions will not be reached until next spring, but some of the issues were explored at a conference, Learning with Technologies in School, Home and Community, in Manchester during the summer.
(www.did.stu.mmu.ac.ukconferenceconferences.shtml) Somekh says: "GridClub is a very exciting vision, bringing together three major players in media, education and online software. If educational materials are produced by people with media and software expertise, children see them as having the same quality as computer games and respond to them."