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School as you've never known it

An ambitious educational technology scheme is linking 400 Staffordshire schools in what could be a prototype for the Government's proposed National Grid for Learning. Dorothy Walker reports.

Children who pay to do their homework are the most surprising side-effect of a new educational network designed to bring together learners of all ages.

The Staffordshire Learning Net, launched last month at a cost of pounds 2m, is linking all Staffordshire's 400 schools, plus colleges, universities and libraries. The network, set up by the Staffordshire Local Education Authority and the educational supplier Research Machines, with BT, aims to give students young and old easy access to technology and resources, with first port of call being the local schools.

In a pilot scheme, Blake High School, in Hednesford, has been operating as an open learning centre, welcoming adults who want to use its computers or take evening courses. But pupils are also taking the chance to do some after-hours study.

Heather Holyhead, the school's network manager, says: "Between 4pm and 6pm we run a cybercafe. Anyone can drop in and pay pounds 1 an hour to use the Internet, and there is always a supervisor there to help. We've had mums, retired people - but a lot of pupils actually come in and pay their money to do their homework.

"They feel they get a lot of information from the Internet - and it really does boost their studies."

This bodes well for the plan to use the network as the basis for homework clubs involving parents and children, although so far most family groups have come along to check out Web addresses in games magazines.

"We have a lot of Trekkies here," says Holyhead. "Sometimes our students are not very forthcoming about their hobbies, but when they are in front of a computer you can see what they are interested in - Star Trek or whatever. They talk to you about it and come alive."

Evening activities, run by local colleges and community organisations, provide a way for the school to fund part of its IT bill, which is also met by sponsors.

Beginners' courses such as "Computing for the Terrified" have been many times oversubscribed, Holyhead says: "Last week there was one lady who could barely walk into the room, she was so frightened. But she came back this week. For many women, a course like this is the first step towards going back to college. They see they can do it, and it boosts their confidence."

Other plans for the network include a link-up with the Open University, which runs a "Have Disks, Will Travel" scheme; students without a computer can show up with a personal floppy disk and do their coursework on a machine anywhere. In the longer term, the network will be used to link students to resources at other schools and further education centres.

Dave Cheeseman, of the Staffordshire education authority, says: "When we don't have enough pupils in a school to justify teaching a subject - Latin, or some modern languages, for example - we could use videoconferencing to link pupils to a remote lecturer."

Cheeseman has also been approached by the University of the Third Age, which would like to see the school technology made available to the over- sixties during the day, as many don't like going out in the dark.

The lessons learnt in trying to maintain a balance between school use and access for the wider community will prove invaluable in introducing the Government's proposed National Grid For Learning, which aims to use technology to link and support all learners across the country.

Cheeseman says: "We haven't quite cracked it yet, but we are working so that schools make themselves more accessible to the community, without hundreds of people of more advanced years storming the building."

Dorothy Walker is the BT Newspaper Technology Journalist of the Year.