Window on the world

14th October 2005 at 01:00
A new online system helps pupils off school for long periods keep in touch with learning. Dorothy Walker reports.

Jasmeet Matharu laughs. "pound;500 doesn't go far in Paris," she says. She has become quite an expert on the French capital. Grounded and unable to go to school for most of last year following a major operation, the 12-year-old explored the boulevards of the city from her home computer screen, confidently completing a project to assemble a four-day trip on a budget of pound;500. The challenging project is one of many offered by IN ON IT, an online system helping young Londoners develop new skills while absent from school.

The system is designed for children with special needs who find themselves temporarily without a school place. Jasmeet, who lives in Hillingdon, west London, has been recovering from surgery on her spine to alleviate the effects of spinal muscular atrophy. She has been working with her home tutor, Mem Jiwa, from the borough's pupil support teaching team, and plans to return to Hillingdon's Haydon school this term.

The system, run by the London SEN Regional Partnership, works on the London Grid for Learning, a broadband learning network. Pupils and tutors can link into the system from anywhere with the appropriate connection.

Children work their way through topic-based projects, some spanning several subjects and all linked to national curriculum objectives at key stages 2 or 3. Jasmeet completed topics ranging from rainforests to the human body, working with Mem for two 90-minute sessions every week. She earned a string of certificates, and a detailed record of assessment will accompany her back to school.

"All the projects have been very interesting," says Jasmeet. "Every time you work on a new project it is even better than the last one."

The Paris exercise took in geography, maths, art, English, spreadsheet-building, internet research and planning. It was her favourite, even though she had to forego a trip to Disneyland Paris to stay within budget.

"I like being on the computer," she says, "and it is good to be able to learn while you are on the computer. IN ON IT has covered many different subjects, but it also teaches you how to use ICT and how to look at things on the computer. There is a lot of visual stuff on the internet, which makes it more interesting than just writing."

Jasmeet suffered pain and weakness in her neck after her operation, and found it useful to be able to tackle projects in small chunks. "We do it very slowly but it teaches you a lot. If Mem leaves me homework then sometimes I work on my own, and I can email her for advice. My family watch me and see how I am doing."

The system started a two-year pilot last autumn: Jasmeet was one of 20 pupils from five London authorities who took part last year.

Her tutor, Mem Jiwa, says: "IN ON IT is not a complete syllabus - Jasmeet also had lessons which didn't use the system. But it enriches children's experience by enabling them to learn through ICT, and they get really motivated because they are learning so much."

Mem also used the system with 15-year-old Louise Morris, who spent time out of her Hillingdon school with emotional problems and is now making a fresh start at a school in Kent. Louise didn't have a broadband connection at home, so the pair worked at the local library.

Mem says: "Louise has an SEN statement - she has cognitive disabilities. I taught Louise for two years and I saw a real change in her when we began using IN ON IT. It was something I never had to motivate her about. If she was having a bad day we would start with some IN ON IT, even if we hadn't planned to. Sometimes we would revisit topics she had really enjoyed, such as healthy living - she loved naming bones in the body. That set the scene, and I could see her thinking: 'Great, now I will go for it!'

"Materials are differentiated. On rainforests, for example, Louise managed the easier option, whereas Jasmeet did the more involved version, with more maps and graphs."

The learning materials have been created by Cara Maria, a full-time consultant. The plan is to encourage teachers to create their own resources, drawing on the principles she has employed.

"This is all about enriching the educational experience of children who are without a school place," says Mary Kuhn, regional facilitator of the London SEN Regional Partnership, "and also re-engaging children who have had a negative experience - getting them back in touch with the curriculum and giving them their entitlement to its full breadth and depth."

This term the pilot will be extended to a further eight authorities. "This doesn't have to be limited to London," says Mary Kuhn. "Any student can be given access via the London Grid for Learning."


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