Ways to spread the net

Wales faces particular problems when promoting computer skills in schools, says Valerie Thompson

While many view Wales as a place with a go-ahead education system, and one where hi-tech industries and job opportunities have been developing for several years now, there are others who look behind the headlines and see something very different, perhaps even a country "stuck in the slow lane" as far as information and communications technology is concerned.

The latest published figures on family spending (2002-3) show that home access to a computer and the internet in Wales falls well below both England and Scotland, and a comparison with London statistics demonstrates how far behind it is if it wants to be up with the best.

All the research over the past four years suggests it is home access that is making the big differences when it comes to technology influencing educational results. So if Wales wants the 500,000 children in Welsh schools to have maximum benefits from technology to support their learning, in the way that children elsewhere are enjoying, then it needs urgently to address the issue of home access.

It might be argued that good access to technology at school can go some way to overcoming this disadvantage. After some considerable effort, we have unearthed a few statistics about ICT in Welsh schools that cast some light on the matter:

* In 2003, the pupil to computer ratio was 7:1, which was slightly better than the average for English schools (7.9:1). For secondary schools the figures were 4:1 compared to 5.4:1 in England;

* there are many very small schools in rural areas of Wales. The average primary school has 174 pupils compared to 245 in England. These schools are unlikely to have access to the size of budget needed to create a modern ICT environment. And that means that when children go home there are no home-school links providing out-of-school support;

* after-school access to ICT is inevitably limited in rural areas where children rely on the school bus to get home. Overall, 22 per cent of Welsh children travel to and from school by bus, compared to just 10 per cent in England;

* however, that figure rises significantly to 39 per cent for children at secondary school. For these older pupils, after-school clubs and extended school opening hours fail to provide a solution to their access needs, so alternatives are vital;

* because of the rural nature of Wales, many working adults outside the major cities and towns will have relatively low levels of familiarity with computers themselves.

So what is the answer? How can a headteacher of a Welsh school address the impact and disadvantage that the digital divide inflicts on young people?

The answer for many schools in similar circumstances has been to look outside traditional sources to alternatives, such as the local education authority end-of-year underspend, one-off government initiatives and, as a last resort, the second-hand computer market. But what they need is sustainable funding. And that is where the e-Learning Foundation funding model might be able to help.

Schools with an e-Learning Foundation are determined to deploy technology to improve the support that learners need when they are away from school.

And they do so by working in close collaboration with parents, who are the ultimate stakeholders in our education system, and other interested bodies.

A regular contribution from parents allows a school to acquire portable computers that can be used during the day at school and then taken home in the evening, weekend and holidays for extended learning, and also provide family access.

Indeed, for schools with low pupil numbers, based in areas of little or no local industry, parents are the only practical partner in the development of technology to support learners when and where they want to learn.

Welsh LEAs can play a key role in establishing local charities to cover all their schools, by fundraising at the aggregate level, providing technical advice and supporting broadband roll-out to rural schools as well as the homes of teachers and students.

It all comes down to local drive, imagination and concern about the digital divide to create a 21st-century learning environment for children in Wales, using technology to provide learning support when and where children want to learn, not just in class and not just when schools are open.

Have those managing the education system in Wales got what it takes to do something about it?

Valerie Thompson is chief executive of the e-Learning Foundation

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