An ambitious project to bring ICT access to less-well-off families in the north-east is bearing fruit, says Lisa Hutchins
It is just coming up to 8.15am and Year 6 pupils are already flooding into Newcastle's Hilton Primary School. But this is no ordinary breakfast club or pre-school activity.
Up to 80 per cent of this year group regularly turn up early to use the school's ICT facilities and soon Year 5 pupils will be joining in too.
The 460-pupil school was one of the first in the country to have its own computer network and has always keenly embraced new technology. But headteacher John Laws realised more was needed in an area with the second-lowest rate of home internet access nationally - just 36 per cent of households.
That figure is directly linked to local standards of living: 32 per cent of children in the north-east live in low-income households - the highest percentage in the country - while nearly 60 per cent of Hilton's pupils are eligible for free school meals. An imaginative solution was needed to ensure widespread computer access.
In January, with help from education charity The eLearning Foundation, the school launched an ambitious project designed to tackle the digital divide in disadvantaged households. It attracted pound;10,000 of funding from the DfES and from local business. School standards minister David Miliband came along to the launch and applauded efforts to "create a level playing field".
The project is based on the premise that the way to drive up standards is to improve access to ICT at home. Mr Laws wanted to be able to offer facilities for a notional cost to families that would not otherwise have access to ICT out of school. With the help of the eLearning Foundation, he put together a deal which makes a new computer with broadband access available for pound;3 a week, while the broadband alone costs pound;2 a week.
Mr Laws says: "It was an enormously ambitious project. We were one of the first schools in the country to have a computer network - that was about 12 years ago. Everything else developed from there.
"Now it's really taking off. We had a launch last May to get people involved. I was really concerned that we had set ourselves a realistic goal. I was anxious that enough people were going to take advantage of what I thought was a really excellent opportunity. So we gave a free t-shirt to every child who brought an adult along to the launch."
As well as setting up funding for this project there were plenty of other issues to field - such as technical support for people likely to be having their first experience of computer ownership. That has been contracted out to a local IT company and concerned parents were offered filtered internet access.
Reluctant users had to be coaxed on board, and another minefield was the issue of connectivity in homes - with broadband only initially available to people using certain providers for their telephone services.
However, two months after the launch, Mr Laws can say: "I believe it has been a success, with more than 100 families who would not otherwise have been connected."
Even before this latest initiative, the school had already made great strides in integrating new learning methods into the curriculum. It started by setting up e-learning portfolios for children at each end of the school - in the nursery and in Year 6.
Mr Laws says: "We have been using PowerPoint to document the work. The idea was to engage children and parents and create a scrapbook of school and home.The quality of work that pupils did was fantastic. We have some very creative people."
The Year 6 project is using learning management software produced by Digitalbrain to create a virtual learning environment where pupils can share homework ideas and access resources while teachers set targets and monitor progress. The next move will be to expand these projects through the school, with Year 5 slated to become involved next.
But Mr Laws believes the boost given by access to ICT at home is the essential next step. He is convinced of the value of the project, saying that the results are already evident in increased confidence and motivation and feelings of empowerment among pupils.
"It is also having an impact on the parents," he adds. "They are inadvertently learning IT skills through their children which enables them to better support them with homework and learning."
* Mr Laws says: "The most important piece of advice I could give to anyone else trying this is 'hold your nerve'".
* A project of this size needs its own dedicated co-ordinator to succeed, rather than it being allocated to a staff member already juggling other responsibilities. The job was taken on at Hilton Primary by a former ICT co-ordinator returning from maternity leave.
* You can't do everything. Teachers are not necessarily computer engineers, project managers or experts in charity finance law. Accept it when you need experts and don't be afraid to call them in.
* Much of the software out there is designed for secondary use. Primaries might have to examine ways of getting it customised to their needs.
* What is your next step? For Hilton Primary the structure is now in place and it is working on ways of using its integrated homeschool learning environment over the next few years. So before you start, work out what you want to achieve and then how you hope to develop it.
* Hilton Primary School www.newcastle-schools. org.ukhiltonDefault.htm
* eLearning Foundation Tel: 01372 824372 firstname.lastname@example.org
* A case study on broadband in schools is available on Teachernet at www.teachernet.gov.ukcasestudiesSubCatHome.cfm?id=108sid=107