The days when a home computer was a novelty have long since passed. A machine hums quietly in one in three homes in the UK, according to research company Gartner e-Business, and 50 per cent of families have one, a half of which have some form of online connection. Microsoft says the home computer market is now the biggest-selling PC sector and it forecasts that 2.2 million home PCs will be sold this year, a third during the busy pre-Christmas season. Over the course of the year, schools are expected to buy around 440,000 computers and businesses two million.
What is more, a growing number of parents are using computers at home or work. A survey carried out by Ipsos-RSL for PC manufacturer Packard-Bell found that almost half of parents (48 per cent) use a PC. These figures have enormous implications for the way children use information and communications technology (ICT) in school. Mark East, Microsoft's group education manager, says:"The barriers between home and school are being eroded and technology is bringing them closer."
Few would deny the great potential for schools to use the installed base of home PCs to create stronger links between home and school, but as RM's director of corporate affairs, Phil Hemmings points out: "Children are not using the same library of resources at home and school. They're not getting their assignments from the school intranet and then emailing their work to their teachers." However, some schools are using ICT to build bridges between home and school, such as Penydre High School in Wales, which has started putting its Year 7 homework and extension work on the Internet so that students and parents can access it at home.
Yet the concern is that many schools are not making the most of the ICT resources now found in many homes. A Kids.Net survey was recently carried out by NOP on behalf of various organisations including RM, the BBC and Anglia Multimedia. NOP interviewed almost 4,000 children from 43 schools and found that over half of them (55 per cent) used a computer mostly at home. And children spent an average of 3.4 hours a week on a computer at home, compared with 2.2 hours at school.
"The challenge is for schools to keep up with the expectation levels of students, many of whom are getting more access to a PC at home," says Peter Stibbons, managing director of Anglia Multimedia. Martin Kilkie, vice-chair of ACCIT, the IT teachers' association, notes: "Teachers are tending to set low-level tasks for kids with computers, such as 'Find out about the life of Louis Pasteur'."
Andre Wagstaff, head of grid content at British Educational Communications and Technology Agency (BECTA), says: "Schools have to recognise that more and more pupils have access to a home PC. The next step is deciding what they are going to do about it.
"You can't ignore the kids with home PCs, because there's a danger that this will create disaffection and a feeling that the work in school is different from the rest of their lives. But then, how do you cater for kids with access to the Internet at home without disadvantaging those without? There are no easy answers."
Microsoft's Mark East sees another problem. He says the company's Anytime Anywhere Learning (AAL) programme uses laptops to provide ICT resources in and out of school, but adds: "The portable PC is a great tool for learning, but what's holding back AAL is how we manage the issue of the disenfranchised."
Such concerns are backed by Peter Day, senior analyst at Gartner e-Business. He points out that the wealthiest 20 per cent of households account for 60 per cent of PC sales. "Although there are sub-pound;500 PCs around, the average price of a home computer is around pound;1,100 because consumers are tending to buy packages that include extra equipment like scanners," he says.
And Graham Hopper, managing director of Packard Bell, adds that the prospects for cheaper computers is small: "We're getting close to production costs already," he explains. Digital television could offer a lower-cost route to the Internet and online resources, and companies such as the BBC, Microsoft, Granada Learning and Anglia Multimedia are investigating this medium.
Homework clubs and computer clubs are just two of the strategies being used to help those children without home PCs, and Microsoft is forming a charitable foundation to help increase access to home computers. But having the equipment is only one part of the equation, says Nigel Ward, managing director of Granada Learning. "You can have the technology in the home, but you also need the right learning environment and supportive parents. What we need is a learning network that transcends home and school, but how many parents have the skills to help their children?" Greater dialogue between schools and parents may hold an answer. Wagstaff believes schools and parents need a greater awareness of each other, and asks: "How many schools know the number of children with home PCs? And how many know the type of machines being used at home?" Maggie Holgate, general manager of the Parents Information Network (PIN), says: "The general level of awareness of how ICT can help learning is low, even among parents who are computer-literate. One in four of the enquiries we get are from schools wanting to know how to help parents."
"If home and school are to become linked, then students need to use the same educational materials in the classroom and the living room," believes Ward. "What we (Granada Learning) are doing is taking the excellence in the classroom and reshaping it for the home market so students have the same high-quality materials at home."
And as David Taylor, managing director of DK Interactive Learning, points out, such crossover will do much to put the minds of parents at rest. "Parents need to know the credentials of what's being offered to them by software companies," he explains. "The good companies are working with teachers and accredited people."
The onus, then, is on schools to play a leading role in helping parents develop appropriate ICT skills and identify good software. Mike Aston, chairman of ESPA, the educational software association, says: "A lot of our member companies don't sell their product in the high street, so parents may not be aware of what's being used in the classroom."
Kilkie argues that a good generic package consisting of a word processor, graphics software and Internet access is more effective than some of the educational software which is available on sale in the high street.
The good news for parents and students is that more and more good educational content is being developed for the home, and companies are pricing it accordingly: Granada Learning offers software discounts to home users; Microsoft has a students' licensing program; AngliaCampus for Homes offers home users hundreds of learning modules for a subscription of pound;45 a year; and RM is planning to launch a low-priced home and community package for its Living Library service, which offers online educational materials. Dorling Kindersley is even planning to put all of its books on to the Internet for free.
As it was designed for home and school users, the National Grid for Learning could also prove valuable and should play a central role in linking both sectors. However, if home and school are to become closer, more children and parents need access to the technology, access to good content and access to help and information. Now that is a tall order.
Parents Information Network. www.pin.org.uk. ESPA. www.besanet.orgukespaindex.html. BECTA's educational software database. http:vtc.ngflgov.ukresourceesr. NGFL Learning Resource index. www.ngfl.gov.ukngflIrisearch.html. TEEM software evaluations. www.teem.org.uk. Subject-based information about software. http:vtc.ngflgov.ukresource.cits.