The technical issues may have been solved, but we are only starting to address the real challenge: the core curriculum
IN THE early days of Channel 4's Brookside, Phil Redmond, the series' creator, apparently decided not to include a public house. The soap's two rivals had the Queen Vic and the Rovers' Return.
Phil wanted Brookside to be different. However, it soon became apparent that the series lacked a location for the conversations needed to move the plot lines on. A postbox was quickly introduced on the estate and, for a number of weeks, important plot developments relied on the characters having chance meetings while out to post their letters. All communities, even virtual ones, need a focus and, for many of the communities that will grow out of the National Grid for Learning, that focus will be provided by the local school or college.
Many of the technical problems associated with using ICT to link schools and the home have been, or are close to, being solved. I have seen impressive demonstrations of systems that allow pupils working from home to log on to a school's intranet to download information, submit assignments and hold conferences with other pupils and teachers.
Such systems also support communications between schools and parents. Perhaps this offers parents the possibility of real involvement in their children's education by providing assessment and other information, such as recommendations for extra work to address a particular learning issue, rather than relying on the ritual of the parents' evening when, all too often, the most appropriate time to intervene has passed.
Perhaps we might also see the end of the dreaded return slip, often the only means of knowing that a letter has made it beyond the school gates. However, as ever with ICT, these technical issues are trivial when compared with the pedagogical, curriculum, social and cultural problems.
Parents are also showing a real interest in the educational potential offered by ICT. The British Educational Communications and Technology Agency has been working with the Parents Information Network to produce guidance on getting the most from new technology. Recent years have seen an explosion in the amount of hardware available to children at home. The average child's bedroom contains machines only now entering the primary school.
However, we know very little about how these children are using the technology and even less about what they are learning by so doing. The pedagogical challenge is to determine the range of learning activities that fit best in the home environment, how they can dovetail with school-based activities, and how these should be adapted to exploit the links.
The curriculum challenge is to produce a sufficiently robust core to provide an entitlement for all children, wherever they are. It should also provide local freedom, to allow institutions to adapt to the needs in their communities; and it should provide sufficient individual flexibility, to encourage learners to develop their own aptitudes and interests.
The debate centres on the core curriculum - how big should it be, what else other than literacy and numeracy should be included, how should it be prescribed, and how much freedom should there be at institutional level? After these questions have been settled we need to move on to addressing the individual curriculum.
The social and cultural issues include addressing the needs of the have-nots and ensuring inclusion. Schools have long traditions of providing a social and cultural focus. The challenge for those of us developing the grid is to build on effective home-school links, where they exist, and to use the power of ICT to help develop them where they are absent. Schools and colleges still have a central role to play. To misquote Mark Twain, reports of their death have been greatly exaggerated.
Niel McLean is head of the schools directorate at the British Educational Communications and Technology Agency