Bridging the gap

10th November 2000 at 00:00
Once the school bell has rung, what stimulation awaits schoolchildren at home? Do they have sufficient resources to carry on their studies? Can the parents cope with the demands of their children and make the best decisions for their home studies? George Cole takes a general look at the state of play while others take a specialist look.

ONE OF the main aims of the National Grid for Learning is to use information and communications technology (ICT) as a bridge between home and school. And the first steps to achieving this have already been taken.

David Burrows, head of education at Microsoft UK, says that there are three phases involved in the linking of home and school. The first involves schools providing websites, where parents and pupils can access general information (the so-called static approach). The next step is to make the sites more interactive so that parents can, say, send emails to school. The third stage involves using ICT to engage parents in the learning process at home, for example, proving resources online: "A fair number of schools are at stages one and two to some degree, but we've yet to reach stage three," says Burrows.

The Kings' School, an 11-18 school in Peterborough, has reached the first two stages and is considering the third, says headteacher Gary Longman. About a year ago, the school asked parents whether they would be interested in using an email facility rather than post for home-school communications. Around one third of the parents said they would and so the service began. Every Wednesday afternoon, the latest news and information is posted on the school's website ( such as sports fixtures, trips, the school calendar and annual report. Parents can also send pupil absence messages via email.

Today, almost 60 per cent of Kings' parents use the school's electronic communication system, with parents opting into the traditional paper-based messaging system. Longman says the system has greatly improved links between parents and school, but providing email services is not an easy option: "It doesn't reduce the amount of work, it simply changes it. Instead of preparing information for the reprographics department, we now prepare it for our Web manager."

At the BETT 2001 educational technology show next January, Bromcom will begin rolling out its My service (see website). Parents will be able to access a website containing information such as their child's attendance, behaviour and homework record. Parents will also be able to send emails to teachers and make online payments for school expenses.

Any discussion on ICT and homeschool links brings up the issue of the haves and have-nots. Bridging this so-called digital divide is a major challenge and the issues are not so clear cut. Longman says that the reason he is able to offer an email service for parents is because more than 90 per cent of his pupils have a computer at home. A study by Professor John Furlong of Cardiff University's social sciences department and others, found that 69 per cent of pupils claimed to have a computer at home. But when this was broken down by higher, middle and lower income categories, 80 per cent of the higher income homes had a computer compared with 53 per cent for lower incomes. The Department for Education and Employment (DFEE) says higher income households are eight times more likely to have Internet access than those on lower incomes.

And as Professor Furlong and his colleagues point out, the speed of technology is such that some homes are using computers that are old or obsolete, leading Furlong's team to suggest that the question should not be "who has access to a computer?" but rather "who has access to what sort of computer?" A number of schemes have been launched to increase home access to ICT hardware. Microsoft's Anytime, Anywhere Learning (AAL) programme uses laptop PCs for home and school learning, and now has more than 300 actively participating schools. Last month, learning and technology minister Michael Wills announced a pound;500,000 scheme to provide computers to around 2,000 homes in a deprived area in Liverpool.

The scheme will use computers provided under the Computers Within Reach programme, designed to provide low income families with new technology. Wills admits that the Government cannot bridge the digital divide by itself, so it will use a mix of technologies and approaches such as digital television and online community centres. The private sector is also expected to play a significant role, and we have already seen software providers such as RM, Granada Learning and Microsoft introducing licensing schemes which make it easier to use software in school and at home.

But providing hardware is only part of the solution. Who pays for the software? What about the telephone bill for accessing the Internet? One of the best ways the government could have helped low income families would have been to ensure that cheap, flat rate calls for Internet access were widely available. And when will broadband connections to the home become affordable and widely available? And what happens when the home PC becomes obsolete?

But even these issues are only part of the problem. Owen Lynch, chief executive of the British Educational Communications and Technology Agency (BECTA) says: "If we're going to have real continuity of learning between home and school we need to tackle the technology issues and also the question of access and support. This shouldn't just be a bolt-on to what happens in school but a genuine development."

This means equipping parents with the means to support their children at home. A survey of 3,000 schools by the Parents Information Network (PIN) found that in 60 per cent of schools, parents had requested help with ICT:

"Only 10 per cent of schools had formalised a policy for helping parents.

"Schools tend to be reactive to parents' needs rather than proactive," says Maggie Holgate, PIN's general manager. She is concerned about the approach being taken to link home and school learning: "It's very much from the top down and appears paternalistic. People talk about it being a partnership with parents, but there's an element of 'we know best', but the home is not the world of the professional educator."

Keri Facer, a lecturer and researcher at Bristol University's School of Education (see page 14), agrees: "Home offers a different way of learning and we don't know much about home and learning. In the school, the teacher sets the agenda, but at home, it's the child who does that." Owen Lynch says parents and pupils at home need access to the same resources as at school, and children also need support, from peers, parents and teachers:

"Schools are going to have to provide teacher support outside of school hours and I can see a time when some staff work during normal school hours and others work in the evenings or at the weekend."

There is also the danger that ICT is seen as the panacea for home and school links. As Microsoft's David Burrows puts it: "If a parent doesn't want to read a book to their child, why should they be motivated to use ICT? The Anytime, Anywhere Learning pilot did find an increase in parental involvement and motivation, but this is anecdotal. We need to be careful about assuming that ICT will improve parental involvement."

Facer adds: "Parents are being told that they must buy a computer for their child's future, but the fact is that we don't know what skills they will need in 10 years. And despite all the hype, we don't have a generation of cyberkids. Children are interested in lots of other things besides computers."

For Owen Lynch, the trend towards homeschool learning raises many issues on the future for schooling: "Who's going to reach the future first? The institution? The teacher? The pupil? Education is delivered through the institution, but as learning expands into the home will it be an opportunity or a threat for institutions? And can schools fundamentally change their ways to cope with the new approach?"

George Cole is a freelance journalist and a former teacher

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