Education: So near, yet so far apart: Donald MacLeod joins British children in a hi-tech transatlantic classroom

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'ARE YOU there London, England?' 'Yes,' said Sarah Robb, launching into her first transatlantic video appearance at the age of 11.

The slightly wobbly images of Sarah, her younger sister, Ellie, and other schoolchildren from Richmond, south-west London, were appearing in classrooms in Tennessee, Virginia and California. Each group could see all the others, and themselves, on a quartered screen.

The first session of the Global Schoolhouse project was under way, using inexpensive new technology to stage a video conference between schools thousands of miles apart. Adults present on both sides of the Atlantic were terribly impressed. Sarah and the other children, on the other hand, lost little time in getting down to the business in hand. Today's subject was water pollution.

From Oceanside, California, came warnings about the high concentration of faecal matter on the local beaches. 'It doesn't often rain in Southern California, but when it does the beaches are often closed,' said David Young, speaking from Jefferson High about what the Americans call 'urban run-off' and the rest of us call sewage.

When 11-year-old Sam Dyerson, of Oldfield House School in Richmond, asked the Californians about Baywatch, the TV series about beach lifeguards, he was told: 'The water is not as clean as it looks.'

From Cedar Bluff Middle School in Knoxville, Alison Jones relayed information, backed up with film pictures, on the rivers and creeks run by the Tennessee Valley Authority. Longbranch Elementary School pupils in Arlington, Virginia, were worried about the Potomac river, where there had been a 100,000-gallon oil spill. At least that is what it sounded like - voices tended to sound garbled over the telephone link, although the children themselves did not seem at all bothered and said afterwards that they followed the gist of the discussion.

Sarah told her American viewers that the Crane, a tributary of the Thames, was getting healthier, with an increase in the number of dragonflies and other creatures. Introducing Ellie, she said: 'We love Crane Park Island and want to make sure that the water remains as unpolluted as possible.'

Ellie, aged 10, then answered a question from the US about the importance of this collaboration. These were global problems, she said. 'The sooner we can work together, the sooner, hopefully, they will be solved,' she said, adding with aplomb: 'Over to you, Carl.' (Carl Malamud was co-ordinating the proceedings from Knoxville.)

Discussion was admittedly fairly well rehearsed, but that was because the schools had been communicating via electronic mail beforehand. Through the fuzzy American accents and slightly jerky video pictures, you could glimpse a very exciting future.

It is relatively cheap. Apart from an Apple Mac computer and a pounds 25 fixed video camera, the only expense involved is in connecting a school to the sort of networks that already link universities throughout the world. The Global Schoolhouse video conference uses personal computers linked to the Internet, a 'network of networks'.

There is no reason why schools across the country - or indeed the globe - should not soon be talking to each other like this, according to Angela Sasse, of University College London, who helped to organise the British end of the conference.

The Global Schoolhouse brought children together across thousands of miles, but exposed some differences as well. The American schools had been supplied with computers for a project backed by the government, and blessed by Al Gore, the environmentally crusading vice-president. The project has secured serious political backing in the United States, where this kind of link-up is seen as an extension of Bill Clinton's 'town hall' meetings, at which a wide range of people can air their views to policy-makers.

The National Science Foundation hopes to extend the project, linking schools with each other and with libraries and other institutions. Mr Gore did not show up for the video link with London, but his book, Earth in the Balance, was the set text for the American schools involved.

The Richmond pupils, on the other hand, travelled to a stuffy lecture theatre in University College to take part in an event that the Department of Education ignored. Not that it bothered them. Ellie Robb's enthusiastic response was typical. 'I went bright red and felt so hot. It's an amazing feeling speaking to someone in America through a computer.'

The British end relied more on unbridled enthusiasm, principally from Mike Burleigh, deputy head of Oldfield House School, who is turning his small special school into a 'telecottage', linking children electronically with 40 countries. His pupils have interviewed scientists working in the Venezuelan jungle, and made contact through pocket radio with Sir Ranulph Fiennes on his Antarctic walk.

Mr Burleigh is UK director of Kidlink, which promotes these contacts between schools. Today is the start of a three-day Kidlink annual celebration to encourage global chat. Last year more than 3,000 children took part, in Australia, Brazil, Canada, Denmark, Germany, Iceland, Ireland, Italy, Japan, New Zealand, Peru, Russia, Saudi Arabia, the UK and the US.

Mike Burleigh can be contacted on 081-941 5102; fax 081-783 0207.

(Photograph omitted)