Valerie Thompson e-Learning Foundation head talks to Dorothy Walker

17th June 2005 at 01:00
"Bridging the 'digital divide' is not only about fairness," says Valerie Thompson. "It's about helping schools make the best use of what is now a billion-pound investment in ICT."

Valerie is chief executive of the e-Learning Foundation, the charity which aims to ensure that, by 2007, all children will have access to ICT, both in school and at home. Her background is in business, and she admits that when she arrived at the foundation four years ago she knew little about education. But her drive and forthright approach have worked wonders in helping schools break down the barriers that stand in the way of anytime, anywhere learning.

Valerie's first job was in marketing at British Telecom, and it was there in the mid-1980s that she became excited about the potential of ICT.

"My eureka moment came with the arrival of email," she recalls. "Rather than having to pick up the phone or send memos via the postboy, you could send a message instantly, computer to computer. It was then that I started to realise how different life was going to be."

In 2001, following senior roles at Redland Bricks and Business Link, a government-sponsored agency helping small businesses, Valerie arrived at the e-Learning Foundation, tasked by the trustees with setting up and running the organisation that would achieve what she admits is a "tough challenge". She hired people with experience in education, and armed herself with evidence of the educational benefits of ICT. "I needed the proof in my bag," she says. "Becta's research really helped, and since then there has been a stream of evidence - anecdotal, systematic, qualitative and quantitative."

She began approaching heads about setting up local charitable foundations that would attract sponsorship from companies, as well as support from parents, who would be invited to help fund go-anywhere technology that could be used in school and at home. A pound;5 weekly donation can fund the lease of PCs, and all pupils can benefit, whether their parents donate or not.

The charitable foundations are eligible for Gift Aid, which allows them to reclaim tax on donations. If parents make a Gift Aid declaration, the charity receives an extra 28 pence for every pound donated, at no cost to the donor.

Around two million children - a quarter of pupils - have no computer at home, and Valerie says many others derive little benefit from the machines they have. "Computers in low-income households are often old and mostly not connected to the internet. So we have to encourage schools and parents to work together on the issues. Without the educational context, a child's geography project could struggle to compete for priority on a home machine.

"The 'digital divide' is preventing schools embedding ICT in teaching and learning. Teachers say: 'I won't use ICT for this because a fifth of my class won't be able to work on it at home.' And an after-school club isn't always the answer, especially if you have to catch a school bus home."

The key is to persuade schools to buy mobile technology to replace old equipment. Valerie says: "There are 1.5 million desktop machines in ICT suites unavailable for use after hours. Mobiles are more expensive, but work out cheaper in terms of cost per learning-hour. Yet some schools are still hard-wiring buildings at huge cost, in the mistaken belief that wireless technology doesn't work."

Around 100 schools are now working with the foundation, which provides ideas, support and funding for those most in need. Valerie says: "Most schools are working with their local foundation, but now you don't have to set up and run your own charity - simply affiliate with us, and we'll manage the parental donations."

She is worried that some of the most needy schools are also those where parental donations are out of the question. "We can achieve 100 per cent access very quickly in the leafy suburbs, but we need a way of supporting sustainability in schools where parental engagement is low and families'

means are very limited. If I could have a magic wand, that is how I would like to use it."

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