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Tempting back absent friends

The 'virtual classroom' could be the best lure back to learning. Gerald Haigh reports on a pilot project to find the answers online

The child excluded from school is also effectively excluded from learning. In most local authorities, "home tuition" ranges from sparse to non-existent. The results are predictable. Take John, for example; he is permanently excluded, too far behind to be successful in another school and drifting into criminal circles. By the time he is 20, he will be living either on benefit or on the proceeds of crime. There are thousands like him.

The tragedy is that John knows all this very well. He is perfectly aware that the successful pupils he mocks and bullies are likely to be the winners in the end. The bus in the distance, though visible and brightly lit, has left him behind. So he makes his mark in the only way he can and, in doing so, he feels worthless and miserable.

Suppose, though, that someone brought him a computer with software that set him interesting work to do at home, at his own pace, without fear of failure or ridicule. He could contact a tutor when he needed help and chat to other pupils in his group.

Were all this to happen, he might stay in and work and begin to feel part of a learning community. Treated seriously by adults, he might regain some pride and belief in himself. He might eventually get some qualifications.

Or, of course, it might all end in tears and failure yet again. The point is that nobody will know until someone gives the idea a proper trial, with good equipment and software, high quality teachers and good funding.

This autumn, a team led by Stephen Heppell of Anglia University's Ultralab unit is going to do just that.

Ultralab's NOTschool.NET aims to be, in Heppell's words, "an on-line virtual community of teenagers placed out of school". The plan is to start with a pilot group of 30 teenagers drawn from a number of client groups - not just excluded pupils, but also those who cannot attend school because of illness or have to attend sporadically because of their itinerant lifestyle, for example. They will be given state-of-the-art hardware, high-capacity (ISDN) telephone lines, video and audio facilities, and they will be grouped into fours, each group sharing a tutor.

Part of the vision, though, is that pupils will be in contact not just with teachers but also - through the teachers as facilitators - with experts in business and industry. As Heppell says: "The world's awash with people with expertise."

Much has to be worked out - which is why this is a pilot project. "We need to put together a toolkit for what works - methodology, pedagogy," says Heppell.

Ideas and plans so far include a provisional timetable: a preparatory phase this autumn; teaching to start in January; a second phase next year in which more pupils will start; and the first conclusions published in January 2000.

Initial thoughts on the curriculum are that it will, in Heppell's words, "err on the side of delight rather than on prescription". He wants something that goes further than, say, Topilot, the CDi Europe-wide project for travelling children. He believes there is much to learn from such initiatives, but wants something that goes much further in recognising that the pupil does not just passively soak up knowledge.

"CDi is interactive but not participative, and there is a clear difference. The problem is not to see this population as an empty vessel waiting to be topped up, but to see them as having skills, capabilities and perspectives that can be progressed and mediated in a way that makes them more generally confident as learners, rather than as a special sort of learner."

The menu will include literacy, numeracy, science, a language, graphic art and ICT. The aim is to work on accreditation with the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority and examination boards.

The number of still unanswered questions is almost bewildering. Exactly what will on-screen tasks look like? What about pupils with literacy problems? Who will the tutors be? What will be the pupil-tutor (and the pupil-pupil) relationship? How will targets be set? If there is a video link, how exactly can it be used? What is the legal status of a "virtual school"? And, what about the pupils who drop out - as some, presumably, will.

"There will be failure for some," says Heppell, "and we have to think how to manage that."

* a sense, all of these problems, though they demand attention, add up to detail. The technology exists to make NOTschool.NET work in whatever way its users want. The real issues concern will and attitudes, from the Government down. Pupils in the virtual school have to believe that they are serious learners, not just participants in a marginal experiment which is a pale imitation of a "real" school. "Can they," asks Heppell, "have their self-esteem repaired and be made ready to be lifelong learners?" What strikes as really significant is that if this is to be achieved, then all those involved - the Government, parents, employers, teachers and pupils - will be acknowledging that school is not the only answer; that there are other routes to learning. This penny has been a long time a-dropping. History shows that only when conventional institutions are shown to be failing will more radical solutions be taken seriously.

Similarly, it will soon become apparent that if a participative approach to learning works better for marginalised pupils, then it will work for all the others, too.

Heppell is a visionary, which is fortunate, because this project calls for the kind of imagination that sees beyond the immediate problems. He has already sparked interest from a range of influential bodies.

Information on NOTschool.NET can be found on Ultralab's website at: Fairground attractions page 10

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