An Internet project lets pupils excluded through behaviour or ill-health work from home, says Gillian Macdonald
Janet is 15 years old and suffers from ME (myalgic encephalomyelitis). She has missed nine months of school this year and is too weak to study for long periods of the day. John is 14 and totally disaffected by school since his family broke up two years ago and he has had to live in a series of homes. Both Janet and John could be members of a new virtual school - Notschool.net - now being piloted in Glasgow and Essex.
Notschool.net was conceived by Professor Stephen Heppell and colleagues at the Ultralab research centre at Anglia Polytechnic University. Its aim is to help children who have missed out on long periods of schooling by offering them flexible access to education via the Internet, with individual tutors to support them at home.
The focus in Essex is on pupils who have been excluded long-term and are in their final year of compulsory education. In Glasgow the children may be picked on grounds of behavioural or health problems and could be anything from 14 to 16 years old.
Glasgow has been selected for the Scottish pilot because it has the highest number of children with disrupted schooling, explains Sandy Cunningham, principal officer for special needs with the city's education department. "The Essex cohort are all in their final year and have been excluded from school. We're adding a different focus.
"The Education Act in Scotland is looking at a statutory service for children with medical difficulties, and the Scottish Executive places an emphasis on social inclusion and education at least to Standard grade. These are all national Scottish agendas.
"There are also crucial statutory differences. In England, schools can exclude children and have no responsibility for them. In Scotland they can't - they can only be excluded by the director of education and approved by the education committee. So all kids in Scotland will be sponsored by their school of origin to attend Notschool."
The first 16 pupils in Glasgow enrolled last month. Some suffer from medical problems - ME, multiple sclerosis, Crohn's disease - and are physically unable to cope with the traditional 9am-4pm school hours 38 eeks a year. Others are looked after or in care and have acquired a history of exclusion or poor attendance.
Four Glasgow tutors will act as mentors for the children, capitalising on their own subject specialisms and working with a team of subject specialists based down south at Notschool.net. Although Notschool.net can provide materials for more or less every subject in the curriculum, the Scottish pilot is not expected to take children through the lot. "We will start with the need for individual education plans for the children.
"Some have not been in school for two years. There will be a greater degree of child-driven curriculum, capitalising on their aptitudes.
"Initially we will be trying to catch the interest of the young people, then move on when their self-esteem has grown," says Sandy Cunningham.
"In Scotland we are not discounting the possibility of them returning to school, but first we want to revive their interest in learning per se. We could be thinking of moving them towards a further education setting or reskilling them to enter the world of work. But at the moment these are not available options for them, and without Notschool, they wouldn't be there at all."
Partners in the Scottish pilot are the Scottish Qualifications Authority which will look at accreditation, the National Grid for Learning Scotland, funded by the Scottish Executive, Learning and Teaching Scotland, which will provide software, expertise, training facilities for tutors and young people, carers and families, and Glasgow's education and social work departments. Ultralab will provide the computers to go into children's homes.
The project will run until November 2001, by which time it hopes to have developed strategies, using virtual learning, that could be easily replicated and rolled out to other authorities.
Stephen Heppell will take part in a debate at this month's Fusion 2000 conference at the Scottish Exhibition and Conference Centre in Glasgow, arguing that "By 2010 people will use technology rather than institutions to access learning" (September 27 10.30am). Stephen Heppell and Sandy Cunningham will do a presentation on Notschool.net on September 26, 2.30pm. See pull-out in this week's Online magazine