A problem shared

7th February 2003 at 00:00
A virtual school uses activities to help children cope with personal issues. Kevin Harcombe reports

Just Like... School! Subscription-based website SEMERC, pound;189 per annum www.granada-learning.com

Just imagine ... a school where no one was scared and everyone felt good..."

No, it's not a description of an Ofsted-free zone, but the laudable aim for this PSHE "online circle-time resource".

The Just Like version of a school features a class of 20 children, each affected by a personal issue. These are explored via four online activities that "allow pupils to understand the problem ... and discover a way of coping with it". Progress is rewarded with credits to spend on playing simple online games.

The password-protected administration site enables teachers to monitor credits earned and to customise a virtual class of five issues for each child in the real class. The 20 issues include looked after children, truancy and learning difficulties.

For example, a child who feels uncomfortable with his weight (or a fattist bully) might have Paul in his "class". "Paul thinks he is fat. He gets called names and wants to be very thin."

Children have to sort statements about body image and play a game which demonstrates that body size can be relative according to the group you are part of. But this relativism and the truism that "there is no such thing as the perfect body" is small comfort in the face of powerfully embedded perceptions about body size, which are constantly reinforced by the media.

I also have several reservations about the design of this resource. In the online version I tried there was no feedback for the deliberately "wrong" answers I submitted. Children will quickly learn that their PC wants to hear "pc" answers and will provide them accordingly in order to get to the games. The software needs to be accompanied by discussion and role-play.

The five games (variations on well-loved themes) are basic and contain glitches. The Disco (a memory game) was slower than the child playing it, while the Centipede game (a variation on Snake) was far too fast. The Butterfly game was sluggish in responding to mouse movement and the Balloon game was simply frustrating. I thought it was my adult fingers that led to a succession of Branson-style crashes as I tried to manoeuvre the balloon down the gully to the treasure, but even Year 6, PS2 experts Matthew and Jobie suffered a similar fate, never landing unscathed in more than 60 attempts. Maybe another issue could be those people made to feel inadequate by an inability to master computer games?

Kevin Harcombe is headteacher of Redlands Primary School, Fareham, Hampshire

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