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Welcome to the cyber sick note

Email could replace the traditional letter between home and school, reports Jill Parkin

Not everyone will like it, but e-links between parents and schools are on their way, and they're being given an extra push by government proposals being debated this term.

Amendments to the Education Act of 1996 are expected to clear the way for schools to send messages to parents via email. It won't be compulsory, but with almost all schools now linked to the internet, the pressure is on.

Forty per cent of households have access to the internet. Among parents, this figure rises to cover 65 per cent of secondary pupils and 55 per cent of primary pupils.

The amendments, which would apply only to England, will allow email to replace letters, which the the law currently says should be delivered to an address. The Department for Education and Skills says schools that are already emailing consenting parents are not breaking the law, but the act needs clarification. The consultation period on the amendments ends in July.

Problems that must be addressed include:

* Compatibility - the wide variety of software in use means not everyone can download every attachment.

* Many parents check their email infrequently.

* Frequent changes of subscriber and address.

* Parental temptation to hit the reply button before thinking.

* Workload - teachers may face a longer school day to deal with parents' emails.

On the other hand, many parents see benefits in developing ICT links with schools. These include:

* Finding out deadlines for coursework and checking what homework is set.

* Ease of contacting teachers, who are often difficult to reach on the phone.

* Simplicity of contact for parents at work.

* Access to a child's targets and records.

* Speed of email.

Parrs Wood technology college, an 1,800-pupil secondary school in Manchester, is preparing the ground for electronic communication with parents. The school moved into a purpose-built home in 2000 with a clear IT vision which included establishing and supporting e-links with parents.

"First, we have to make the cultural change, so we're making sure families have access," says assistant head Samantha Wells. "We've been lending reconditioned and customised computers to pupils who have no access so they can log on to our intranet from home.

"We already have parents who have chosen to be contacted by email or by text message and we'll be able to do more when everyone is hooked up. Those already doing it find it fast and efficient. There will be problems in the early days but we'll get through them.

"There are other benefits of electronic links with parents. Through the e-portal on our intranet, parents can pull up pupil profiles, attendance records, assessment information and targets."

Elsewhere, parent-school email may be some way off, but there are other ways in which e-communication is helping school-parent links. For example, termly newsletters and "dates for your diary" are commonplace on school websites. At Thomas Telford school in Telford, Shropshire, parents have a password to gain access to the school curriculum online.

"Many of our parents have internet access, says Jo Davis, the school's press officer. "It was an easy step for us to take because our school year is split into four-week modules and we know what the curriculum is for the next 12 months. Parents can access a particular subject area, find out what their child is doing and talk to them about it, which is valuable.

"Next, we plan to video some of the science experiments and put those on the intranet too, so parents can see them and children can revisit them."

Cornwallis school on the outskirts of Maidstone, Kent, catches keen new parents with a presentation on the school website, which offers them access to homework resources. The Year 7 and Year 8 IT courses and homework guidelines have been put on the website as a virtual classroom, and parents have access to a database for monitoring pupil performance in literacy and numeracy.

Cornwallis, a 1,600-pupil secondary school with lower than average attainment on entry, is in an area where many children are creamed off for state selectives, but it now has proof of how e-educating parents can work in favour of pupils too. Just before the virtual classroom was launched, parents of one class were sent letters that told them pupils had fallen behind on coursework and that resources to help them were available online. The letters asked parents to encourage their pupils to work from home. As a result, pupils soon caught up and many parents now say they feel more aware of their children's learning needs.

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