Silicon Glen sets pace

The future is being built in West Lothian where schools, libraries and community centres are being linked in one enormous network. Gillian Macdonald reports

West Lothian is probably best known for the famous question that has bugged politicians at Westminster since the introduction of the devolution bill for Scotland: why should English MPs be excluded from discussing devolved Scottish issues, while Scottish MPs can discuss any English issues. The question was posed by Tam Dalyell, Labour's Member of Parliament for the area.

Today West Lothian in the central belt of Scotland looks set to be famous for its advances in high technology. As Scotland waits to hear how money for the National Grid for Learning will be distributed, the local authority is already a model of how it will operate.

"This is the heart of Silicon Glen, an old mining area where unemployment led to incentives to industry to move into the area," explains Richard Pietrasik. "Sun, Mitsubishi, NEC, Motorola, Cadence - the big companies are just locating here, and our pupils are going to go and work for them." Pietrasik is headteacher of Deans Community High School in Livingston and manager of CREATIS, the three-year project that has put West Lothian way out front.

Two years ago the authority entered a bid for a share of Challenge Fund money set aside for innovative projects by the Scottish Office. Today, every school in the authority is wired up ready for connection. CREATIS won Pounds 2. 7 million over three years, which the authority has "more or less matched". Two private partners in the bid were Sun Microsystems who provided network servers and computers, and Telewest who delivered fast cabling (broadband) but subsequently pulled out. A "server farm" at council headquarters now drives a network across the authority: each secondary school has its own server, and caches of pages; any unsuitable material is filtered. Primary schools run off the West Lothian server.

It is an impressive feat. All networks and servers are installed and working. All secondaries are connected via high-speed (ISDN2) phone lines from BT and have up to 200 computers each. Twenty primaries are connected with ISDN2, and the rest will be connected by April. Public libraries are cabled and community centres will be connected shortly. "We're an example of the best system you could have at the present stage of development," says Pietrasik.

Equality of access is central to West Lothian's strategy. All children are being issued with their own email addresses, user IDs and passwords. They will have access to a computer network at school , at homework clubs until 6pm, and at local libraries till about 8pm. All they need do is show their photo ID cards.

Most secondary pupils already have access to machines on the recommended ratio of five to one; the others will catch up in April when the last tranche of CREATIS equipment arrives. Of the 65 primary schools, some have already reached the government goal of fifteen pupils to one computer; "just about all" will get there in 1999, says Pietrasik. And the National Grid money is still to come.

Teachers in the authority have been very positive, says Pietrasik. West Lothian benefits from an "asymmetric week", which frees Friday afternoons for in-service training. The main progress has been made through voluntary twilight courses run two to three times a week at Livingston Education Centre where teachers are introduced to browsing on the Internet and using email.

About 40 curriculum support teachers have been issued with computers, modems and Internet service providers at home, "to develop ideas for the curriculum and act as evangelists for classroom teachers".

rive 20 minutes from Livingston through country roads, woodlands and fields of grazing cows, and you come to the picturesque town of Linlithgow, with its own palace and loch behind the high street. This is the home of Linlithgow Academy, the school on which CREATIS was modelled. Six years ago, the school discovered an asbestos problem in its Seventies building and received Pounds 6 million from West Lothian for refurbishment.

Telewest, a local company, was cabling the town for television, with a node just 100 yards from the school. "We approached them to put in a fibre link, which they gave us free," says the depute head, Bob Fergusson. "The beauty of this was the bandwidth which could give hundreds of kids access at the same time, from their own desk or from the library."

Linlithgow Academy approached Edinburgh University and got connected to its SuperJanet database, for a standard Pounds 1,000 fee. The links were all in place.

The school has 205 computers and five servers. By the millennium, it will have 450 machines . Thirty Java network computers and a lot of staff development are also on offer from Sun for a research project to investigate how they can be used in the curriculum.

Every teacher at Linlithgow Academy has a computer on his or her desk, which they use for internal school email and for administration, such as pupil profiles and reporting.

There are dedicated computer centres for business studies and computing, and in the library where first-year children receive courses in information retrieval, like the Pirates project which requires them to use books, CD-Roms and the school's own intranet. Files can be opened from anywhere in the school.

"The virtue of the intranet is that we can pitch material at the right level.," says the librarian, Chris Morrison. "Pupils won't know it's just coming from our server rather than the Internet itself. There will be colourful graphics to attract pupils with learning difficulties. " Teachers in different departments share his enthusiasm and vision of what the system can do for their subjects. Morrison is encouraging them to develop their own Web pages on the school's intranet, so that everyone can access them. The history department is producing pages on the industrial village of New Lanark, which third to fifth years are researching and writing, and fifth and sixth years are designing - click on Robert Owen's house and you'll learn about the 19th century pioneer of the co-operative movement. Click on the textile mills and read about the humane working conditions he developed.

* the art department, the principal teacher Paul Boyle is creating an industrial design studio where pupils will be able to scan and manipulate images using Apple Macs and colour printers. Students of GCSE photography will be able to put names like Bill Brandt on to their own Web pages and make links to pre-selected sites from exhibitions.

"With CREATIS and I-GEAR, material is filtered, so children can work at different levels. First years only have access to certain sites on the Internet, bookmarked by staff. Second years have freer access, and will have learned how to use search engines. Responsibility is the the key," says Bob Fergusson.

Where responsibility falls down, the firewall system steps in. Malcolm Stalker, principal teacher of computing who manages the school network, explains: "I-GEAR logs the sites pupils have been at, so we can say 'Hey, Johnny, I see you were knocked back twice yesterday'."

The program has a dictionary, giving scores to words that can cause problems. Pupils looking up "Virgin" for a rail timetable exercise in computer studies were knocked back because "virgin" gets a positive score. And the RE department was unable to do a search on "Virgin Mary", so "Mary" had to be given a negative score to cancel out the positive. "I-GEAR will also blank out words on a page, and when it reaches a score of 100, zap out the page and put a lock on the site," says Stalker.

A Science Online website set up by the Scottish Interactive Technology Centre for the Scottish Office gave primary teachers email connections to science staff at Linlithgow Academy and all the Scottish colleges of education, a forum with noticeboard facility, a preparation room for posting up teachers' own work, and library with links to connected sites and documents.

"Primary teachers could email questions or requests for help and receive answers within 48 hours," says Carol McDonald, acting head and principal teacher of biology, who hopes the system will become a wider pilot study.

Bob Fergusson says: "We have made mistakes as we've gone along, but now we have pupils who are IT-literate. For some kids that's an end in itself, because they will need those skills when they leave school. We have also improved the resources available within subjects."

Tactics and Trends 98: Bob Fergusson and Malcolm Stalker will talk about The Networked School Experience on November 4 at 3.05pm.

Richard Pietrasik will be speaking on The Creative Project (an Xemplar seminar at Tactics and Trends 98) November 4 at 1.10pm.

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