OFTEN WHEN Sumbo Obaseki picks up the phone she hears the screech of a modem talking to the Internet. This is a sign that one, or sometimes all three, of her daughters are seeking some help with their homework.
From league tables to inspectors' reports, an unprecedented amount of data about the state of Britain's schools is now available. However, this kind of data does not excite parents much.
"We do want information on how well a school is performing," says Obaseki, "but more importantly, we want to know exactly what our children are doing at school and where we can quickly get the right information to help them with their homework."
Once, finding the right information would have meant the local library, but children today are fluent in the .com-speak of website addresses. Since discovering AngliaCampus' for Homes service, which makes national curriculum material available on the Internet, the Obaseki family has been gathering around the computer screen. "It is usual for the children to mess around on the computer after school and we have always encouraged them to look for education sites, quizzes and games to amuse themselves with," says Obaseki. "Then, by chance, we discovered this site and soon realised it has all the information necessary to help them with their homework. The test papers were very handy for our 11-year-old who was preparing for her Sats exams."
The quality and content of education sites vary enormously. There are now numerous purporting to offer educational support services for home PC users, and the problem for parents is sorting out those which are useful. Trawling through all of them in an effort to source the kind of information that will help their children with homework could result in hefty telephone bills. Moreover, many of these sites lean towards the US market and don't come close to what is needed for projects this side of the Atlantic.
Looking for material can be frustrating. For example, keying in "maths" for five-year-olds on RM's Living Library produced information on algebra that would have been more suited to secondary pupils.
AngliaCampus for Homes and others, like AOL's Ask a Teacher, Living Library, and The Times Educational Supplement's relaunched website, Learnfree, which offer support for students, parents and teachers, are pitched specifically at the UK market, and, unlike libraries, they are open all hours. The latter is free, unlike Ask a Teacher which can only be accessed through AOL's Learning Channel, which is included in the Internet and online service provider's package.
Teachers host each curriculum area, including special needs, and will either answer your emailed question or point you to the right site on the World Wide Web. The Learning Channel also offers test-yourself areas, where you can have a live conversation with a teacher about a subject. At specific times of the week, foreign language chat rooms are set up and chaired by teachers. Both AngliaCampus and Living Library charge annual subscription fees of pound;49.99.
Each site boasts that it covers every subject in the national curriculum categorised by age and key stages. Bear in mind that it is impossible to know who has prepared these sites or how accurate and how up to date the material is. Learnfree, which has done a trawl of the education sites to find out which is the best for parents, includes links to more than 1,600 selected and vetted education websites and collaborates with teachers to regularly update online materials. It also provides access to Letts and HarperCollins study guides.
"Sometimes there are mistakes on the site, but you can email AngliaCampus and within a couple of days they are corrected," says Richard Hubbard, ICT co-ordinator at Bradwell Hillside First school. "As a user you find you become a kind of contributor".
Hubbard sometimes uses the lessons suggested on the AngliaCampus website, or adapts ideas from it, but he does not recommend parents go into the school section of the site. "They might find the quantity of material overwhelming. What parents need is a gentle guide through what their children are doing at school. It is also important for parents to realise that the numeracy projects in schools now are different from the kind they would have had.
"Sites like this give them a good insight to the whole of the national curriculum and are another way to access information," he says.
Traipsing down to the local library to hunt among miles of shelves is already becoming a quaintly old-fashioned way to research that history or science question. It is now a lot easier to appeal for help from AOL's Ask A Teacher. The answer to a homework question or address of the relevant website is supposed to come back within 24 hours, but often takes only two.
Yet there is a danger some students will simply cut and paste answers from the Internet. I know of one 13-year-old who tested Ask A Teacher's knowledge on Jacobean shenanigans during the reign of King Charles II. "Did the Jacobites ever have a chance of winning the battle of Culloden?" he asked. A couple of hours later he copied the answer into his history book:
"With the state of the army and their feelings probably not, but stranger things have happened." It will be interesting to read his teacher's comments.
But education on the Web is not all Pythagoras' theorem and pie charts. Many sites promote the use of the Internet among parents and include information such as advice and support for those interested in becoming a school governor or joining the PTA. Others provide pupils with careers advice and guidance about selecting courses at colleges and universities.
"There is always something new to learn on the Web," says 11-year-old Adesukhun Obaseki. "I have found things that have helped me understand a subject better and if more children used it like us they might enjoy school more."
Educational issues site for parents and teachers. www.learnfree.co.uk. Subject-based interactive activities, exams and lesson plans. www.angliacampus. Educational resources and web publishing for children. www.eduweb.co.uk. Combines Web access with a host of extras including approved educational. resources. www.aol.co.uk. Vast number of links for the family. www.lifestyle.co.ukab.htm. Directory of websites for children including homework help. www.yahooligans.