Virtual school to educate sick children via the internet

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TRIALS of a futuristic "virtual school", which its backers hope could offer lessons over the internet for up to 250,000 children, will start later this year.

Academics hope that transmitting video lessons to computer terminals in pupils' homes will offer hope to the thousands of children who are unable to attend school.

The virtual school is being developed by the team advising on the school of the future that will feature in the Millennium Dome. Academics at Anglia Polytechnic University's Ultralab computer research facility want to use video technology to link retired teachers with children who cannot attend school because of long-term illness or phobia.

Researchers are also hoping to examine whether the idea could have benefits for children who have been expelled from school.

Children taking part in the project will have computer consoles that will let them send and receive video messages from their teachers and pick up specially set work or textbooks over the internet.

It is expected to be launched as a pilot in September, with the first 30 children logging on in January.

Ultralab head Professor Stephen Heppell said he hoped the system would allow children currently denied full-time education to take exams.

He said: "Our objective is to start with 11- to 14-year-olds and get them through some exams, rather than try to get them back to school. We want to help their self-esteem and qualify them. We would like them to be learners for the first time in their lives."

He said the project would involve the Science Museum in London, Barnardo's and the World Wide Fund for Nature.

`There are a lot of children who are unable to attend school; people with long-term illnesses, people excluded or suspended.

"We want to recruit retired teachers on a ratio of one teacher to four children to be their learning brokers."

The scheme would make use of advanced educational software that can already teach children by leading them through work at their own pace. More than 80,000 children already use similar systems in the classroom.

Sophisticated systems developed for use by children can allow teachers to talk through work over the internet using live video links, and post reference material, worksheets and even blackboard notes by e-mail. Pupils can even use the internet to run through videotaped lessons at home.

The potential of the internet to help children study at home will be tested when the first Education Action Zones are launched in the autumn.

Bids for the zones, which will allow groups of schools to tear up existing practice in order to raise standards, include setting up computer networks for children and teachers.

Margaret Hodge, chairman of the Commons Education Select Committee, has even suggested that interactive computer systems could even replace trained teachers in the classroom.

But government sources played down the idea of using computers to deal with expelled children.

Ministers are planning to offer full-time education, either in special classes in school or at dedicated referral units, for all disruptive pupils excluded from school.