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Telford hooks up for e-community

By linking in to a cable TV network, even the smallest primaries will enjoy better Net links than most British firms, says Chris Johnston.

Plenty of local authorities talk about turning their patch into "learning communities", but Telford and Wrekin Council in the West Midlands seems to be transforming the dream into reality.

The authority, which was created in 1996, is connecting 86 schools, colleges and libraries to a fast network that takes advantage of cable television fibres laid by Telewest.

As well as linking educational institutions, the network will put online a range of public services - users will be able to find out when a court case is due to be heard, for example - and will be accessible via public kiosks and in homes through digital TV. Graham Foster, council head of planning and resources for education, hoped it would result in a more interconnected community.

However, schools are likely to be the main beneficiaries of the network, which by any standards is extremely fast. Speeds range from 10 Mb per second to an incredible 100 Mb. Even Telford's smallest primary school will have a better Net connection than most businesses.

That is not the only impressive aspect of the initiative. Foster said no servers would be put into schools. Instead, "nodes" in nine schools, will link those in the vicinity. These are all administered remotely from the council's central office, removing the maintenance burden from ICT co-ordinators. ICL, the e-business services company, is managing project with almost pound;12 million over five years. Central government is providing significant funding support.

Advanced technology automatically notifies engineers of problems on computers so that they can be tackled before users notice them.

Blesed Robert Johnson College, a Catholic state secondary, was one of the first 10 schools to be linked to the network in September. The school now has three rooms of networked computers with projectors and video conferencing facilities that let A-level history students talk to professors at Lancaster University, for example, or take subjects the school cannot offer.

John Martin, the head, said a crucial element was the staff training programme implemented by the council to ensure all its teachers make the best possible use of technology in the classroom.

Redhill primary, opened two years ago, was the first school to be linked to the network and is testing the BBC's new broadband online learning resources. These are used with a projector and interactive whiteboard, which head Jenny Noel-Storr said was a powerful combination. She said there were three computers in each teaching area and even reception pupils were using ICT and six-year-olds created PowerPoint presentations.

All pupils in Telford get an email address that they will keep through school and they will benefit from the authority-wide software licences that have been negotiated.

Telford and Wrekin Council regards the network as a crucial element in fostering lifelong learning, homeschool links and reducing the digital divide. As one of the nine National Grid for Learning "Pathfinder" authorities, the council and its development is being watched closely by the Department of Education and Employment.

Foster, who is one of the driving forces behind the strategy alongside Christine Davis, director of education, and Professor Steve Molyneux of Wolverhampton University's Telford-based Learning Lab, can justifiably call the initiative "trailblazing".

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