Across the digital divide

2nd March 2001 at 00:00
January 2000 at London's Olympia. It's the Bett show, the annual schools computer jamboree. One thousand Birmingham teachers are there, not just to see what's on offer. They are also there for the launch of the Birmingham Grid for Learning, the giant computer system that links 8,000 computers in 478 schools and acts as their portal on to the Internet. The city is proud of what it has achieved: pound;4m anually for four years was committed to the cause and, this year, it's pound;5.5m as the last tranche of the National Grid for Learning money filters into the system. It helped that its size encouraged the DFEE to make Birmingham a pathfinder authority for the initiative so it got extra cash.

But the results are there for all to see: 675 hours of resources across all key stages in Web format for teachers to access; 150 schools - primary, secondary and special - with their own websites; email addresses for all teachers; 90 per cent of the schools abe to run computerised registration and capable of filing their statistical returns, not quite at the touch of a button, but as near as dammit; one fifth of schools with broadband connections to the Web for fast access. You could drown in the statistics.

"Our job is to empower schools to do their job better," says Mike Briscoe, one of a dedicated team of decidedly human techies at the grid's headquarters in Erdington. "But the schools are in the driving seat. Unless they are convinced that what we show them is worthwhile, they won't buy into it."

"It helps that the boss believes computers in classrooms can reap benefits: Tim (Brighouse) worries about the kids in our care," says Chris Price, the man in charge at Erdington. "Are the kids in poor areas getting the same deal as middle-class kids? We're very aware of the digital divide. It's our job to make sure that the have-nots at home are not have-nots at school as well."

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