Mothers' pride

Tower Hamlets City Learning Centre in London is pioneering ICT courses for Bangladeshi mothers to help them discuss school with their children. John Galloway reports

Fatima STARES at the screen. She places a stamp of a pot plant on top of the computer in her digital photo then switches to the fill tool and colours her sari purple. Next she adds two blobs of red for earrings. She sits back and smiles. She adds her name then saves her file, clicks Print, selects a printer and collects her work. Not bad for a second ICT lesson. Even better for a 30-year-old mother of three who can barely speak English, had never touched a computer before and has had little education.

Computers are changing education. Classrooms today are different to those of 10 years ago, let alone those of most parents. We inevitably judge our children's education by thinking about our own, so how can we fill the gaps in our understanding, particularly those created by the use of new technology?

For many of us, this is not too great a problem. We use computers every day at home and at work. And the rhythm of the school day is little changed; primary children still sit on the carpet, work in groups around tables, change in the classrooms for PE and make Mother's Day cards. The relationship between teacher and pupil is perhaps a little closer today - less hierarchical and more like partners in learning.

But how about those of us who received a limited education under another system and in another country? Who have never touched a computer? Who speak little English and read even less? The gap is not only in their understanding of technology but also between their educational experiences and those of their children. They are on the wrong side of the digital divide: poor, under-educated, isolated.

Recognising these issues, the Workers Educational Association and the Tower Hamlets City Learning Centre run a computer class for Bangladeshi mothers. Every Friday morning for 10 weeks, 15 Sylheti-speaking women educated in Bangladesh - most for four years of primary schooling - come together for an innovative and inspiring class. Most have never touched computers before, but at the centre they learn the same computer skills as their children to complete tasks such as making labels, taking photos or searching the internet.

The sessions are taught in English and Sylheti by two primary teachers. In English it can be difficult enough to explain the difference between "Save" and "Save As" or "Close" and "Exit". With a dual-language demonstration and group discussion, all students understand. This group is the only weekly activity many of the women have outside their home, but their conversations are mainly instructional - "Point there" or "Click here" - and when work is lost, they realise they have used the wrong command.

When they surf the web to find photos of their home country some of the women find it difficult to search in English. A Post-it note with "savar" written on it circulates and using this keyword brings up images of a park in Dhaka. Tahmina wants to read Ittefaq, a daily newspaper, but can't find a phonetic spelling that Google understands. A tutor guides her to search for "Bangladeshi newspapers" and soon she is reading in Bengali about the secondary school exams that are just starting in Bangladesh.

At the last session the women proudly receive certificates and are asked about the course. Has it helped them discuss school with their children? "Ji," they agree in unison. With tutor Farhana Hussein interpreting, Nazreen says her son asks: "Are you going to your computer course?" Her children are not the only ones who show interest: Fulbahar's are keen to see what she brings home and Kulsama has taught hers how to use the symmetry tool in Colour Magic.

At the end of their course, the women are told about other courses nearby and encouraged to attend. Their disappointment at not continuing at the City Learning Centre is clear in any language. For all of them, the course has opened a window on to their children's learning, letting them see their schooling in a new light. And they also see how far they have come in crossing the digital divide.

As they leave, the women pause to look at digital photos of the presentation. Could they have copies? One disk would do.

Starting up

The four "W"s of setting up a parents group: Who , What Where and When Who is going to run it?

* an in-school initiative, with a teacher given time to run it

* a member of the LEA staff

* a partnership with an outside agency such as the Workers Educational Association (contact them at What will be learnt?

* the same ICT skills as their children but through tasks relevant to adults, such as creating a family history

* language and literacy skills including key ICT vocabulary, (The dual language posters from BECTA at technologysayitindex.html are a useful resource)

* that computers are for everyone, and that we all have the skills to make them work

Where will it be run?

* in the school ICT suite

* at a City Learning Centre or Professional Development Centre

* through the Adult Education Institute or an FE college

When will it run?

* for a set number of weeks

* as a drop-in that parents can attend for as long as they feel the need

* at the beginning or end of the school day so that parents don't have to make extra journeys

And don't forget to

* advertise in local community languages

* have information ready for when your students need to move on

* use it as a way of building or reinforcing homeschool links,

* provide a creche where possible

* allow first-time computer users the room to be nervous

* be sensitive to cultural issues, eg your participants may feel more comfortable with female tutors, and allow for religious observance

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