Caught in the net

24th October 1997 at 01:00
Whenever politicians and pundits talk about what the Internet might contribute to education, it's usually in terms of the attention-grabbing, glamorous resources available on-line, such as space probe pictures from NASA or paintings from art galleries around the world.

The phrase "local education authority Internet site" doesn't sound quite so super in the superhighway rhetoric stakes, but the untrumpeted setting up of Web sites by dozens of local authorities around the country could show how the medium might be used for education.

As central government is only just getting off the starting block with its plans for a National Grid for Learning, a local authority such as Hampshire County Council can already boast a Web site that offers half a million pages of information about its services.

If half a million pages sounds like a volume of information likely to make your head hurt, then consider that almost all of this information currently has to be produced on paper as part of the authority's administrative workload.

Schools (in Hampshire's case, 540 of them) have to be sent circulars about council policy, finances have to be agreed and the public kept informed, committees have to be kept in touch with other committees, information has to be ready for school-hunting parents and so on.

For education, the "Hantsweb" project offers a centralised source of information on admissions procedures, school transport, grants, school governors, term dates, adult education courses, appeals and complaints procedures. If you want to know about individual schools, there's a list of every school, with details of Office for Standards in Education reports, exam results, the governing body and where to get more information.

For non-public communication between schools and local authority there is also a "Hantsnet" system, with its 17,000 mostly public-sector users having access to five million pages of council information (a figure that covers the whole breadth of the council's services). As well as acting as a database for local authority information, Hantsnet offers its users e-mail and an on-line financial management system.

Authorities are also using the Internet to provide recruitment information for would-be teachers. The London borough of Richmond upon Thames has a slickly-presented Internet site that includes all its current teaching vacancies and details of what it can offer potential recruits in terms of money, support and career development.

The great parental demand for information about admissions to secondary schools is also addressed in Richmond's Internet site. As well as a detailed, on-line prospectus for each school, the Web site provides a practical, step-by-step guide to the admissions process, beginning with an "action list" for those seeking places for September 1998, with dates of open days, the schedule for offers and deadlines for appeals.

Cambridgeshire is another pioneer of the local authority Internet sites, with an education section providing information about the authority's schools, its support services, admissions procedures and special needs provision.

As with other local authorities, the information on Cambridgeshire's Internet site is also available on paper. But once the on-line link is in place between schools and the local authority, there is an opportunity for using this electronic channel for swapping other kinds of information.

For instance, in addition to its Web pages, Cambridgeshire has an electronic bulletin board network which is used by the education authority to send out a newsletter and job vacancies. And in a timesaving piece of software, the network runs an automated system that regularly checks that the school's account of its budget tallies with the account held by the local authority.

This might not sound as exciting as getting an on-line picture of Jupiter, but as more and more authorities set up Internet sites, it could provide a practical glimpse of how the grid for learning could ultimately be used.

Cambridgeshire County Council: Hampshire County Council education and training:

London borough of Richmond upon Thames education pages:

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