A simple matter of faxes?

31st May 1996 at 01:00
Earlier this month the Education and Employment Secretary, Gillian Shephard, launched a scheme which encourages businesses to donate their old faxes to schools. TORY: If you want a fax machine for your school, now is the time to get one - free. That's the good news. The bad news is that it could be very old.

A scheme which encourages industry to donate old fax machines to schools has just been launched. Called Faxes for Kids, it is organised by the office machine giant Gestetner, and is the latest example of what appears to be a growing trend: schemes which feed machines discarded by industry to education.

It is a trend which has its critics. Education shouldn't be making do with second-best, they argue, and who guarantees the safety and effectiveness of the machines?

The Government, however, seems increasingly in favour. Launching Faxes for Kids at the House of Commons, Gillian Shephard, Secretary of State for Education and Employment, called it "an excellent example of how private and public sectors can work together to help each other" and said that she would like to see more such developments.

Certainly Faxes for Kids has all the markings of a good deal. Gestetner will collect, clean, service and deliver the machines to schools. Everything is free. There is a 30-day warranty on distributed machines and a voluntary, cut-price service contract on offer.

The rationale is explained by Gestetner's managing director, Nigel Palmer: "There are thousands of old or unused fax machines in the business community which could so easily be given a new lease of life in schools. Many companies have upgraded, or are planning to, from old thermal machines to modern plain paper faxes or to even more modern multifunctional printercopierfaxes. " It seems he is right, for just two weeks after the launch over 120 machines had been donated.

Helping to administer the scheme are two charities, Education Extra, which promotes the development of after-hours activities for children, and the Open School, which aims to make education accessible to those children isolated at home, in hospital, in pupil referral units or in children's homes. Fax tutoring, allied with electronic mail (e-mail), has proved effective in teaching and communicating with children who are otherwise cut off from their peers and mainstream education.

Half of the fax machines donated will go to institutions and individuals recommended by these charities. The rest will be distributed by Gestetner on a first-come-first-served basis. Manuals or instructions will be included.

A similar project, organised last year by the same company, gave 1,500 schools free laser printers from industry. And earlier this year Multimedia Exhibitions organised a much-criticised Free Computers in Education scheme, with the aim of putting discarded computers into schools. This was criticised for a lack of educational purpose and an assumption that schools do not need powerful computers.

"Just throwing machines at education, doesn't do any good. There has to be an educational framework," says Eileen Devonshire, assistant chief executive of the British Educational Suppliers Association, which fears that constant computer crashes and maintenance problems in old machines could discourage teachers from using information technology.

But Jeff Morgan, director of the National Council for Educational Technology, says: "Any initiatives which increase the IT resources are welcome, so long as they enable schools and colleges to meet curriculum needs". Fax machines could contribute to the curriculum, he adds. "Their use can motivate pupils and teachers and enable them to communicate with others anywhere around the world."

Certainly the Gestetner scheme makes clear its educational objectives. As well as working with two charities who have successfully used faxes in schools and elsewhere, the company lists in its literature ways in which fax machines can be used, including links with schools abroad and in the UK, reporters' clubs, after-school study support and school radio stations.

An up-to-date directory of schools throughout Europe which want to establish fax links with other schools will be provided to all those receiving free fax machines.

But will old machines effectively meet these objectives? With computers there is an emerging groundswell of opinion that old machines won't do, since computers must be capable of running up-to-date software which meets educational needs.

Fax machines do not need to be new for schools to get educational value, argues Jeff Morgan. "Second-hand faxes are perfectly suitable as long as they have been serviced and are working effectively."

Drake Primary school in Plymouth has been using fax machines in the curriculum for about six years for applications which include sharing information on the weather and collaborative story writing: one school starts a story and others continue it. Headmaster Tony Gazzard agrees that state-of-the-art fax technology is not needed in schools. Their three fax machines are about four years old and are still useful, even though they recently acquired modems which enable them to fax straight from a computer. As long as the machines are safe and in working order, old machines are fine, he argues. But he counsels schools to take into account running costs, especially telephone charges and the cost of thermal paper. Happily, servicing has not been a problem.

One school which has already applied for its fax machine is Islington Green in London, which plans to set up a "fax pal club" and to exchange faxes with schools in Italy, Germany and France. "Schools have to be opportunistic, " says assistant head Dan Dickers, "But it's sad in a way that we have to go cap in hand."

But is receiving second-hand goods really bad in itself? All too easily overlooked is a broader rationale for the project. As Ray Georgeson, director of Waste Watch, a charity which promotes recycling and re-use, says: "Extending the life of a product and promoting its re-use is good for the environment. It postpones its addition to landfill." Most educationists probably agree that can't be bad.

* To register for a free fax machine send an A4 SAE to John Wilson, Gestetner Faxes for Kids Scheme, Gestetner House, 4 Rushmills, Northampton NN4 OYB

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