Should parents chip in?

You need cash for an ambitious computer scheme; so who do you ask? Chris Johnston reports

YOUR school has technology college status and wants to remain at the cutting edge. Along comes an idea that would achieve this goal, but it involves taking a leap of faith and spending about pound;300,000. To top it all, parents will be asked to contribute to the cost of the project. What do you do?

The governors at St-Martin-in-the-Fields high school for girls in Tulse Hill, south London, have had to grapple with these issues. The idea for St Martin's "connected learning" project followed a visit by three teachers to Adelaide, Australia, where they saw schools using technology to support learning - rather than technology being allowed to dictate learning.

Andrew Warner, St Martin's assistant head and information and communications technology strategist, was one of the three. A close relationship developed with Lambeth education authority's e-learning strategist, Chris Davies, and resulted in St Martin's project acting as a pilot for a wider Lambeth scheme. The pound;28 million proposal would eventually see all 7,000 of the borough's pupils equipped with their own portable computer.

It is hoped that the computers, which pupils can take home as well as use at school, will not only raise achievement but get other family members interested in learning as well.

Gina Birley, vice-chair of governors, says she and her colleagues were split for a long time about whether to give the school's project the nod. "Some feared that we were putting all our eggs in one basket," she explained.

Mr Warner and Mr Davies spent time explaining the concept to governors to get them on board. They eventually agreed the idea was worth pursuing because of the potential benefits, both for pupils and the wider community.

"I have been a governor here for three years and have never had to deal with anything like this before. I have spent many nights lying in bed wondering how it will work. I am concerned that we use the limited resources we have in the most effective way," said Ms Birley.

The most contentious issue was the need to ask for parental contributions. The school has never had to do so before, and headteacher Lesley Morrison admits she had reservations. Financial help from parents is essential to help meet the cost of providing the school's 140 Year 9 pupils with a Psion netbook, a portable computer that is smaller and more rugged than a laptop, but has similar capabilities.

Parent-governor Pauline Thomas says as many parents as possible will need to contribute if the project is to be viable, so contributions had to be set at a realistic level. The school is asking tax-paying parents for pound;5 a week and others for pound;2 a week. Families will be sent a video explaining the initiative and pupils will be asked to help convince sceptical parents.

Ms Birley says that all pupils, regardless of whether their parents contribute, will be given a netbook.

The school is receiving pound;50,000 from the e-Learning Foundation, a charity which aims to increase access to ICT in education and ultimately wants every pupil to have access to a personal portable computer. St Martin's has to match that funding, and - with the national organisation's help - is setting up a local foundation to manage parental contributions and attract donations from local businesses.

Valerie Thompson, the e-Learning Foundation's chief executive, says research shows more than half of parents are willing to make a contribution to this type of initiative.

Chris Gale, chairwoman of the National Governors' Council and a Foundation trustee, agrees that many parents are willing to help. She has no problems with asking for contributions so long as any scheme is voluntary and parents who choose not to contribute are not looked down upon.

"It has to be very sensitively handled," says Jane Phillips, chairwoman of the National Association of Governors and Managers.

e-Learning Foundation:; tel: 01372 824372

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