Have you done your homework?

18th October 1996 at 01:00

A Berkshire comprehensive has teamed with parents in pioneering home-school computer links.It is 8am on a wet autumn Monday. Eleanor just about manages to lift her head an inch from the pillow - enough to allow her to see through her bedroom window and see that the sky is still dark and it's raining. Still, it's early enough for her to get to school on time, but first she has to check something on her computer.

She is playing in the school's basketball team and will need a lift home afterwards. However, she has forgotten where they are playing. Logging on to the Information Hub through her home PC she connects to the school diary and confirms the location.

On arrival at school she registers with her class at tutor time. Today she has a session booked in the integrated learning centre to improve her mathematics. She spends 15 minutes on tasks set by the computer which uses her previous performances to analyse her strengths and weaknesses. It then provides exercises and tasks which serve as extra help and support on her weakest topics.

Across the school other pupils are logged on to terminals connected to the Information Hub where they can use specially filtered information from the Internet or multimedia CD-Roms to enhance experiments in science, or prepare geography databases of European countries for 11 year olds in the neighbouring primary schools.

Once she's at home Eleanor needs to finish some history homework on the Second World War. She logs on to the Information Hub and finds some hints about where to look for more information she can download on to her own PC. That completed, she turns the machine over to her parents so they can check how she is progressing at school and whether she has been truthful about the amount of homework her teachers have asked her to do.

This may sound like a scene from a science fiction film. It is, in fact, the probable consequences of a state-of-the-art networking project at Highdown School, a large 11-18 mixed comprehensive in Reading, Berkshire.

The project aims to link up pupils' homes to its central Information Hub. Since March this year, 50 teachers, parents and their children have been participating in the Highdown Information Hub pilot scheme, part of the Government's "Superhighways for Learning" initiative.

Chris Poole, the deputy head at Highdown, is the driving force behind the trial. With the school's IT manager, John Kirk, he has designed a database which can complement the national curriculum and increase home-school links.

With Pounds 190,000 from the Technology Schools Initiative and a partnership with Microsoft, ICL, Digital Equipment and Telecential Communications, it has secured the equipment necessary to create a global village for teachers, students and parents.

Efforts are under way to integrate the Hub into a wider community network, with Reading Borough Council agreeing to establish the Reading Learning Network, a constellation of information hubs based in libraries and community centres.

"The trial is about the impact of the information superhighway on education and to determine how valuable home-school links are," says Mr Poole.

"We are going into it with the clear assumption that there are enormous benefits, but we want to prove that in terms of educational outcomes."

He points out that the Highdown Hub is not an Internet project. "It is a project about how to use information technology to help improve the quality of education. Teachers must get away from the `computer room in schools' scenario and involve parents and the wider community."

Eighty PCs are linked in clusters around the school, and the homes of teachers and parent are being connected. They can filter materials from the Internet, and students can access interactive CD-Roms and other curriculum materials at appropriate levels.

Surprisingly, most of the parents who agreed to join in the trial either had PCs or were on the verge of buying one. Those who did not have a PC were supplied with the right equipment by ICL with the option of buying them at a discount at the end of the trial. Even more astonishing was the level of IT competence among the parents, who have been organised into small support and development groups. These groups are working on a range of projects to support the curriculum.

Mr Poole says: "Parents are at the heart of what we are trying to do - teach their children. And it is our duty to tell them that part of their role is to look at and identify ways in which they think we can improve and extend the quality of home-school communication."

The level of support received by parents has been high, according to Don Passey, a member of the evaluation team employed nationally to look at this range of superhighway projects.

He says: "The idea of community involvement in education is not new, but the way the superhighway is closing the distance between school and home is new. Will pupils perceive such close parental involvement as interfering?" Twelve-year-old Tom Parker's answer to this one would be yes. But his father, Ian, says: "It can't do him any harm to have the discipline that we are so aware of what he is doing at school.

"Although none of us knows whether this home-school link is going to be exceptionally useful, we do know that being able to supervise his work in more detail can only give added value. With my finger now on the button he can't always say no when I ask him if he has any homework."

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