When most of Laura's friends get home from school, they do their homework on a computer, making use of the school network, BBC Learning facilities and other online resources, then e-mail it to their teachers. Laura, 13, can't do this because her mother can't afford a home computer. Like an estimated two million children in the UK, she is on the wrong side of what's known as the "digital divide". Essentially, she can't continue learning with the technology she is increasingly expected to use in the classroom.
This matters because good access to ICT at home has been proven to influence educational outcomes. Yet low-income families are five times less likely to own a home computer than high-income families, and the gap is widening. At least one in four schoolchildren in the UK lack home access to computers. If you ask a class in an inner London school who has a computer at home, they'll all put their hands up because nobody wants to admit that they don't, but even those that aren't fibbing often have slow machines and little or no access to the internet.
Children from ethnic minority backgrounds in deprived areas are particularly likely to suffer from being on the wrong side of the digital divide, Warwick University researcher Dr David Owen discovered. His study found that black people living in these areas have less access to home computers than their white counterparts. The survey also revealed that many black families who own computers often have older, cheaper models because of their lower income. "Some people are being left behind, with our increasing reliance on information technology," he says. He points out that awareness of computers is important for people's future employment, as well as their current educational needs.
The digital divide is a relatively new problem for schools, says Valerie Thompson, chief executive of the e-Learning Foundation, an educational charity whose mission it is to ensure that every schoolchild in the UK has access to technology in the home. "Over the past five years, they have come from pretty much nowhere to a position where we have two million computers in British schools catering for eight million children," says Thompson. "It's taken this time for schools to understand how ICT can best be used, to train staff and to get to grips with fundamental changes in the way teaching takes place."
But as the reliance on ICT spills out of the classroom, schools must find strategies to ensure that children from low-income families don't miss out on crucial learning opportunities, she says. The e-Learning Foundation has launched Equity (Equal Opportunities in IT for Young People), a nationwide campaign to increase awareness among schools of the practical steps they can take to address the problem.
"Where children do have good access - and I know this because teachers tell me - they are more focused, there is a sense of enjoyment in their learning that was often missing before, and they take more responsibility for their own learning," says Thompson. "Many children are re-engaging and thinking, 'Actually, it's OK being at school.'"
In many cases, schools are having to ask pupils to leave at closing time, whereas before they were fighting to get them in, she says. "But if computer access isn't available outside their lessons, then the 15 per cent of their lives that they spend at school won't be enough to overcome the pre-existing social disadvantages these children already suffer."
Many schools are already well on the way to overcoming the problem. Ed Yeates, head teacher at the Venerable Bede Church of England Secondary School in Sunderland, says, "We are very aware of the haves and have- nots. Everyone is equal in the classroom when it comes to technology because it's available to all, but once they're outside, that's no longer the case."
The first thing the school has done is open from 8pm until late, as well as during the school holidays, providing access to ICT - as well as support staff - to all students. "And because we serve two former pit villages, one of which is a mile away down a steep, lonely hill, we've acquired the old primary school in that area, which we are refitting to become an ICT outreach centre. It will be open five days a week, including evenings, linked to our intranet, and manned by people the children know."
The school has been working hard on providing computer skills for parents too. "It brings home to parents the importance of ICT," he says.
The difference all this is making to students' work is already apparent, says Yeates. "The damage we've had to ICT is absolutely negligible because the young people respect the access they have."
His next goal is to provide laptops for students - something that St Paul's Catholic College in Burgess Hill, in West Sussex, is already doing. "We have a completely wireless network," says head teacher John Flower. "And because we have 550 laptops for 850 students - with an aim of having one for every student - it means they can borrow them for home use."
The scheme is helping students stretch their minds in new ways, he says. "For example, we are making increasing use of forums, which in other contexts might be described as chat rooms. The teacher poses a question and invites the kids to make comments - one staff member recently reported 30 responses."
The parents are invited to make a donation towards the equipment, although they don't have to do so. According to Paul Danielson, deputy head at Invicta Grammar School in Maidstone, Kent, parental help is a key part of any computer-loan school initiative. "Our students are issued with a laptop in year seven, which the parents can make gift-aid donations to of up to £15 a month. We try to make the monthly payment as small as possible to get the commitment, but obviously it's important to make it clear that parents don't have to pay."
Because students can send in their assignments online from home, teachers can get on with marking much quicker and in many cases, the computer does the marking itself. "I particularly like using ICT in maths," he says. "The student sends me the work and I can mark it electronically and send it straight back. They can see where they're going almost immediately. What a lot of other teachers like is that their students can change their work without it being full of red ink. There is a nice quality piece of work at the end."
Some of the critical thinking of younger students has improved dramatically as a result of widened access to ICT, says Danielson. "And the quality of homework is much higher because of the access to resources that they have."
In many areas, councils are waking up to the importance of bridging the digital divide. Keith Watson, head of ICT and data management for education and cultural services at Wakefield Metropolitan District Council, says, "We have an integrated network of computers not just across schools, but libraries and community learning centres. So all citizens, including students, have access that they may not have at home. What we're finding in our libraries is that even those who have access at home are coming in because of the speed our computers offer, thanks to BT's broadband access."
If you'd asked Valerie Thompson five years ago about the extent of the digital divide, she'd have said we have a very long journey ahead. Ask her now and she'll tell you the back of the problem has been broken, although there's still much work to be done.
"The important thing is that the Government is committing funding to it, and we're here to help schools. Many businesses in the IT industry are also starting to do their bit," she says.
For the first time, schools have an opportunity to support learners when they're not in the classroom and in the absence of a teacher, she says. "I'd go so far as to say that computer technology is to teaching what penicillin was to medicine. What we must do now is make sure nobody misses out on it."
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