Mum, Sir will lend us a Mac

A parent network and a few secondhand Macs have provided a school with a cheap and effective solution, writes Phil Revell

Just where do parents fit into the National Grid for Learning? The Government has talked about training teachers, distributing hardware and creating websites, but little has been said about how homes will be linked to the Grid or how parents can become involved.

One stumbling block is home ownership of computers which, despite having mushroomed through the Nineties, is still less than 50 per cent of households. However, Brooke Weston City Technology College in Corby has been confronting this problem by supplying re-furbished computers to the parents of its 12-year-old (Year 7) students.

"Many of our students have computers and we think they are advantaged, " says the vice-principal, Peter Simpson. "We set out to get Year 7 online as part of a development plan which reviewed IT across the whole college." The review resulted in improved computer networks and the appointment of a website manager whose role it was to put the Brooke Weston curriculum - or as much of it as possible - on the school's website.

"We had two requirements," says Peter Simpson. "The ability to access read-only material, and to be able to get into their own work, pull it down and put it back."

The college bought 39 modems for homes to access the school network and 70 old computers were refurbished and leased to parents. For Pounds 30 a term, parents receive a reconditioned Apple Macintosh with a modem. Parents on benefits are lent machines without charge.

"The nightmare was that we would give out 70 Macs on Monday and that they would all go wrong on Tuesday," Simpson says. In readiness for thispotential problem, the school's parents' association set up a telephone tree - "22 folk who are all IT-competent to some degree".

When the Macs are distributed, parents are put in touch with a member of the PTA IT group, which then deals with the minor problems that beginners experience with unfamiliar systems.

"The parents tree is soaking up the problems," Simpson says. "We've had very few calls direct to the school."

Graham Davies is a member of the parents' association IT group. An inventory controller at RS components in Corby, Graham was used to PCs:

"Macs were a bit of a switch for me, but a computer is a computer."

One of the things that appealed to Graham was getting involved with the school. "When the parents collect the machines, we're there. We'll show them how to put the machine together. If a call comes through, I just talk them through the options available."

For Mac complications, Graham has the phone numbers of Mac users in the group and, for real disasters, he can contact the IT specialists at the school, something which, so far, he has notneeded to do.

Vicki Sidwell simply knows that it has made schoolwork easier for her daughter. "She just potters off upstairs," she says, "just as if she was at school." The Pounds 30 fee is "well worth it".

The Sidwells are now considering buying their own computer. Her daughter, also called Vicki, is delighted with the Mac. "It makes it easier to do my homework." And there are other spin-offs: "I've been helping my dad," she confides.

The Brooke Weston scheme offers a template for schools looking to extend their use of information and communication technology, and also involve parents in children's learning. The reconditioned machines offer a low-cost introduction to the technology and parents' groups are an untapped resource.

But should schools be doing this? "It is an issue," Simpson says. "Should we become the Radio Rentals of school computing?" Perhaps not, but if Brooke Weston does not, who will?

Brooke Weston CTC's website is:

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