A sixth-form college has created a network of secondary and primary schools, giving them access to the vast resources of the Internet. Without the initiative, the 19 schools might well be struggling to get to grips with e-mail, browsers and the World Wide Web.
The project, originally the brainchild of Colchester Sixth Form College principal John Edwards, has been developed by David Watts, head of technology, with his staff and a network of contacts from local schools. Mr Watts believes the project will facilitate a wide range of curriculum-based initiatives, add hugely to the research facilities for all students, and greatly improve the exchange of information between the college and its partners.
The idea was first mooted when the college became a BT "link" school in 1994 (a test-bed for the company's new technologies). From this came the realisation that what was really exciting was Internet access for all students and staff - and that it should be available to a network of partner schools.
The college decided to offer secondary schools help with installing the necessary telephone lines and modems; some schools that already had these were able, in turn, to connect their local primary schools. So the network now comprises 16 local secondary schools and three primaries.
St Benedict's College, typical of the secondary schools in the partnership, has an enthusiastic supporter in Malcolm Moss, head of technology. Although its Internet access has been limited to a single PC, St Benedict's has ambitious plans to install a local network so that every PC in the college will have full Internet access. The school would also like wider links to Europe - it has partner schools in France and Germany.
Mr Moss's interest and involvement grew from the idea of simulating industrial practice, where products are designed in more than one country and manufactured in another, the key being the ability to implement a paperless design, such as for aircraft or motor manufacturing. St Benedict's has close ties with a school in Picardy, where the embroidered textile industry's use of sophisticated technology and strong links to a local school has been of considerable interest.
Pupils at Friars Grove Junior School - one of the three primary partners - were involved in a recent Sunday Times-sponsored project in which primaries around the country were asked to e-mail messages to the newspaper to be transferred to a CD-Rom. This will be included in a package of materials being carried on board NASA's Huygens space probe, which is scheduled to blast off next October en route for Titan, one of the moons of Saturn, where it should land in 2003.
Another project for Friars Grove involves using the system to exchange pictures and stories the children have created with a linked school in Tanzania.
The Sun system Colchester has gone for (unusual for UKschools) was provided by Relay Business Systems of Bath. It runs on the UNIX operating system which is usually found in higher education. According to Bob Lewis, schools account manager for Relay: "Although the UNIX operating system might be thought too daunting for the average school IT manager, Sun's Solaris graphical user interface makes it as easy to operate as any Windows PC.
The college system is a Netra server running on a Sun workstation. The college's network is connected to service provider Demon Internet via a high-speed (64K) leased line, which gives them fast access to the Internet on all their 120 computer terminals. The partner schools have 28.8 dial-up connections using US Robotics modems; the first year's account charges and line rental are paid for by the college.
The last word goes to David Watts: "The project has given the college access to the biggest library you can get, and we are not aware of any other project of its kind anywhere else. We would like to try and develop it in an educational sense and share what we are doing.
"And this is only the beginning; already we have had requests from both the Colchester Borough Council and the University of Essex to establish links with the network, and there is tremendous potential for this to become a true resource for the whole community."