Surfing before breakfast, served with smile

14th February 2003 at 00:00
A cybercafe set up in Paisley a year ago is boosting children's confidence while developing their information and communications technology skills.

Held at the Ferguslie Learning Centre, run by Reid Kerr further education college, it enables children to surf the web, send e-mail messages, design posters, play games and mix with others of their own age.

The cafe opens for two hours on Monday evenings for S1 and S2 children and on Saturday mornings for P6 and P7 youngsters. Around 45 attend each session and an estimated 10 per cent of the estate's 700 or so primary-age pupils have attended at some time.

The project is a spin-off from an after-school family initiative which encouraged parents to explore computing with their children and help with homework. "We were having to turn away lots of youngsters whose parents couldn't come because of work or other commitments," explains Letitia Fraser, Reid Kerr College's learning centre's manager.

A management committee was formed and members toured local schools asking children what activities they would like to participate in. Now they benefit from access to the centre's 14 personal computers, scanners, digital cameras, photocopiers, games and dance mats.

Sue Walker, headteacher of Castlehead High in Paisley, has seen dramatic changes in the behaviour of some of her charges who attend. "I like the ethos of the place," she says. "It's a very well set up resource, a pleasant place to be and the children can take time to enjoy it without period bells ringing.

"There is a focus on the individual which we would like to be able to implement but are unable to, because of the way our time and curriculum are structured."

Ian Stewart, a lecturer in computing at Reid Kerr College with experience of working with youngsters at the YMCA and young offenders, has spent 18 months tutoring various groups at the centre.

"The kids are thriving in this environment," he says. "They get a lot of attention and support and have responded by becoming a highly responsible group whose confidence has grown tremendously.

"Some have problems at school and fairly brief attention spans, so we concentrate on short-term projects with immediate results."

Projects have included taking photographs with digital cameras in order to produce calendars. They have also started creating their own web pages, which will be incorporated into a Ferguslie portal site due for launch in May.

A regular activity for the primary school group, epitomising the project's aim of teaching the youngsters without their necessarily realising they are being taught, involves creating a different breakfast each week. They surf for information about food in various countries, then type up recipes.

Adult volunteers source the ingredients, which the children prepare the following Saturday.

They are also avid users of Gaggle.net, a California-based website which provides safe, teacher-controlled e-mail accounts for students. The group are in regular contact with children in Missouri, Austria, Germany, Switzerland and Australia.

Mr Stewart emphasises: "The support from volunteers is crucial. My professional involvement alone would not make the project work. The children want attention and they want it now!"

One volunteer is Margaret White, who is in her late 40s and is deputy manager of a bingo hall in Glasgow. She was born and bred in Ferguslie and recalls the local burn and street games as the only form of entertainment, and leaving school at 15 with no qualifications to work in the Ferguslie mill.

Now, having started with an access programme in computing at the learning centre and nearing completion of her European Computer Driving Licence, she is happy to put something back into the community by helping Ferguslie children seek a better career start than hers.

Volunteer Jack Houlison, aged 54, was drawn to the centre while attending a neighbouring day centre for the elderly with his mother. A long undiagnosed sufferer of dyslexia, Mr Houlison has completed his ECDL as well as a course in counselling and is now doing HNC modules in ICT.

"The cybercafe has taken off in a big way and the kids just love the whole experience," he says. "It's a great confidence booster."

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