How do you shrink the "distance" in distance learning? Travelling showmen's children attending Lingfield Primary School in Surrey have discovered that laptop computers are the answer.
With a Showmen's Guild site nearby, there are 23 travelling children on the school roll; 11 are winter schoolers who spend about eight months a year on the road. But now, as well as using traveller teachers and homework packs, they also keep in touch with school and friends by using laptop computers on loan.
The scheme originated from the National Association of Traveller Teachers, explains Roger Feltham, area team leader of Surrey's traveller education support service. The idea was then put forward to the DfES as a way of enhancing distance learning. It provided funding and the project was launched as the Electronic Learning and Mobility (ELAM) Project. Surrey secured four computers under the scheme, and has subsequently paid for nine more itself. The majority are in primary schools. There is a county budget of pound;19,000 this year. The crucial part of the equipment is a data card that plugs into the laptop. "It's a wireless means of connecting to the internet," Roger Feltham explains. "It's rather like plugging a mobile phone into a laptop. You then connect to the nearest telephone mast."
Seven children use the equipment at Lingfield, (although they invariably share with siblings), and require a minimum of six, two-hour training sessions to get up to speed. Out on the road, they also have a list of telephone numbers for technical support.
Traditional traveller teaching methods continue to be used at the school, says teacher Hilary Levy, Lingfield's distance learning co-ordinator.
Therefore, children have homework packs, divided into weekly sections. ICT tasks are written into each weekly plan. "They complement each other," she says.
Parents have received the laptops enthusiastically. "There is absolutely no resistance at all," says Hilary Levy. Roger Feltham adds that some have offered to buy additional equipment and data card air-time.
The biggest advantage over homework packs, Hilary Levy says, is ease of communication: "The children don't feel stranded; rather than give up on a task, they can email for help."
Charles and Tracey Horsley have two children who have been using the laptops for a year. "It's helped them a lot," says Tracey. Charles, who would like to see all showmen's children have access to a laptop, adds:
"They pick up their work, and if they can't work it out they email back.
It's better than being stuck for three weeks while we're right down the other end of the country."
Children are also able to keep in touch with friends and what is happening in school. "It helps the settling in process when they come back," Hilary Levy explains.
"It wasn't a shock coming back to school this year," says Tracey Horsley.
"It's like they have only been away a week or two."
During the scheme's first year, Hilary Levy tried to communicate two or three times a week with each child. Typically, she would help with any problems, and pass on information from class teachers.
Now in its second year, children are doing regular maths and literacy work.
"They're also doing an increasing amount of our context work which links all the other areas of the curriculum," she says, citing science, history and geography internet searches as examples. They have also been asked to plan and develop DT projects.
And the subject to benefit most? "I think English," she says. "It's the confidence of having a go, having spell check there to support your spelling, and having a reason to write. It's a purpose for writing."
Roger Feltham thinks ICT has benefited most. Upon returning to school, the children are streets ahead of their classmates, he says.
"They get access to a fantastic piece of equipment every day, whereas our sessions in class are probably limited to twice or three times a week," Hilary Levy says. This, in turn, has motivated them hugely. "They want to have a go, they have been able to experience the highs of success," she continues, adding that the children return to school with tremendous confidence.
Headteacher Ron Gandolfo agrees that laptops have been a great boon in communicating. "It's fantastic for me to come in during August and September and see these emails from pupils and how they are getting on. You get emails going backwards and forwards with a seven and eight-year-old.
You just couldn't replicate that in any other way."
The way forward? Charles Horsley would like to see children talking to teachers via webcams. Not only is it more personal, he says, but you can assemble a group of children and teach them as a class. Roger Feltham agrees.
The project's only snag has been the occasional difficulty in obtaining a telephone signal - although that is not insurmountable. "If they've got some work to do, I usually put them in the car and drive them to an area where we can get one," Charles Horsley says. "Sometimes, it's only 500 yards down the road."
The LEA and the school welcome ideas and comments. Email: email@example.com or Ron Gandolfo at firstname.lastname@example.org