Fairground attractions

18th September 1998 at 01:00
Absence from school does not have to mean loss of learning. Gerald Haigh reports on the European Topilot education project for long-term absentees

Jodie Merrin, 14, in the educationally crucial Year 10, spends several months of the school year learning GCSE Business Studies at home with the aid of information and communications technology. She is not a truant - she has not been expelled. And though the technology Jodie uses is relatively basic, she is a keen learner and her experience, and that of the people running her education project, is a significant pointer towards what is undoubtedly going to happen in a very big way in the coming years.

Jodie is a member of a fairground family. Each Easter she leaves her school in Leicestershire to go on the road with the fair, returning in the middle of the autumn term. To fill the gap, her school and local education service lends her a number of learning packages and resources for travelling children.

During her time out of school, Jodie has time to study, but needs to be able to choose when to do it. Her mother, Sandra, says: "When people ask me about our lifestyle, I say that we are just like everyone else really, except that when we go to work we all go together as a family."

The fact that fairground families spend so much time together, all sharing in the working lives and business problems of the parents, means that the children, generally, are very mature and capable, and well suited to independent learning. This is certainly the case with Jodie, whose quiet confidence is impressive.

What she most likes is the work she does with her Philips CDi machine on packages prepared as part of the Europe-wide project Topilot, an acronym meaning "to optimise the individual learning process of occupational travellers".

The project is based in Brussels and co-ordinated by the European Federa-tion for the Education of Children of Occupational Travellers (EFECOT). Twenty-two partners across Europe are involved; 15 are schools, including T P Riley school in Walsall and Anniesland College in Glasgow. The West Midlands Education Service for Travelling Children is another partner.

The project presents Jodie with on-screen tasks and her responses are transmitted via the gsm network (as used by many mobile telephones) to her tutor, who sees them on a personal computer. The tutor can send back simple messages to her screen, but anything more complicated has to be done by ordinary telephone conversation, usually with her tutor, Sally Gurney, a teacher with the West Midlands Education Service for Travelling Children.

When I met them, Jodie had just finished a business studies package - CDi material, supported by a folder of worksheets and information. The video (some film, but mostly stills with voice-over) uses, as a case study, a fairground family facing decisions about buying equipment, choosing sites, dealing with legal requirements and hiring employees. Jodie, working on her screen in her tiny bedroom, much prefers this way of learning. "Business studies can be boring if it's just sitting at a table working from books. But this way I've learned about how it's used in our business."

She likes, too, the flexibility of being able to work when it is convenient. "I pick it up when I have time," she said. "On Tuesday, for instance, I was on it all day." Sally nodded at this. "You were, too. You did a lot that day and you did well."

Jodie was anxious to get on to the next package of work, which Sally was delivering to her. At the moment, the selection of subjects is limited. But, as Jodie says: "This could be used for other subjects, and it would make them more interesting."

These early experiences with Topilot will be evaluated this autumn. Some of the lessons to be learned are obvious: almost all the problems, says Sally, have been to do with the hardware - not the machines themselves, which are robust, but with wiring and communications.

(Caravan life does not always suit high-tech equipment, especially if it has to be taken apart and put together again each time it is used because of shortage of space. The electricity supply is sometimes erratic, too - CDi players do not mind this, but some laptop computers do, which should be borne in mind for future projects.) Ideally, the system would be much more interactive - something which Stephen Heppell of Anglia University's Ultralab unit is aiming for in NOTschool.NET.

What Jodie and her family are demonstrating is that for many youngsters - probably more than anyone thinks - education needs to be able to ebb and flow in and out of school.

Some schools, say teachers of travelling children, are very slow to appreciate this, so that where one teacher will be excellent at setting work for travellers, another will show little insight. For a whole summer's work in GCSE English, one pupil was given by her teacher the complete unadorned text of a Shakes-peare play, printed off the Internet, and told to make what she could of it.

This is an example of how not to use a potentially powerful resource. The need, clearly, is not just for separate packages for travelling children, but also for some blurring of the boundaries between school and not school, and some clarification of what is the responsibility of schools towards irregular attenders.

As ICT develops, it will become much more possible for individual schools to keep in touch with their travelling pupils.

EFECOT, Grensstraat 6, B-1210 Brussels, Belgium efecto@edm-topilot.luc. ac.be

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