By George Cole
More than 270,000 households could receive a free computer and broadband internet connection as a result of a new scheme to be formally announced at the BETT 2010 educational technology show in London in January.
The Home Access scheme is an ambitious programme that aims to tackle the issue of the digital divide – children from poorer households lacking access to ICT. And government ICT agency Becta, which has run a pilot scheme in Oldham and Sussex, is convinced of success. It says the piot "went like a rocket".
The e-Learning Foundation says that some 1.5 million children in the UK don’t have access to a computer and broadband at home. These children are disadvantaged in various ways, for example, when it comes to doing research work for projects and homework assignments. And as schools roll out learning platforms (such as Virtual Learning Environments, VLEs) which put educational resources online, and form a bridge between home and school, the need for internet access at home increases.
What is more, research from the Institute of Fiscal Studies suggests that having a computer at home could result in two- grade improvement at GCSE. This means that a pupil who got a D for a GCSE could get a B at with the help of technology at home.
Ninety per cent of low-income families put in a Home Access application
The Home Access programme was announced by the government in October 2008, and in February 2009, a £30 million pilot project was launched in Oldham and Suffolk, managed by the educational technology agency Becta. Families whose children qualified for free school meals were eligible to apply to join the scheme. Niel McLean, Becta’s executive director for schools and families, says: “The pilot went like a rocket. Ninety per cent of low-income families in the pilot areas put in an application.”
Some 9,000 families received laptops, broadband access, support and software. Niel McLean says the pilot adopted a new approach in terms of organisation and management: “We wanted the families to become consumers, and so it wasn’t simply a case of handing out kit.” Instead, each family was given a debit card preloaded with £600. The card could be taken to an approved electrical retailer and used to purchase a computer and internet access which matched a specification set by Becta.
Another reason the Home Access scheme worked so well was because the schools’ role was about informing parents rather than managing the scheme. “Schools get hacked off if they have to pick up the administrative load for schemes like this," says Niel McLean. "We wanted school to pick up the educational benefits.”
Schools support families rather than equipment
Chantry High School, in Suffolk, was involved in the pilot programme. Chris Wood, the school’s assistant head responsible for ICT, confirms that the school’s role was minimal when it came to managing the scheme: “We never saw a single piece of equipment, which was a relief, because we had had visions of lorry-loads of equipment turning up at the school gate.”
Chantry High’s role was to make parents aware of the scheme, and so the school held several sessions to which parents were invited for an overview of the scheme. Chris Wood estimates that two thirds of the school’s 300 parents eligible for the scheme applied. He adds: “Parents who were successful are absolutely delighted. I think parents are becoming more aware that access to ICT can make a difference to the level of achievement for their children.”
Parental support is also important. Suffolk County Council, for example, ran a six-week introductory computer course for parents to improve their ICT confidence and skills. Some schools in the pilot scheme also ran computer classes for pupils and parents.
The full scheme – which runs until March 2011 - will have a few differences from the pilot. There are six approved suppliers – Bli Education, Centerprise, Comet, Misco, Positive IT and XMA – and Capita will run the central administration. The pre-loaded debit cards will have a value of around £530, to reflect the fall in inflation. With child online safety in mind, the computers will have a CEOP (Child Exploitation and Online Protection Centre) “Report Abuse” button.
Special needs software will also be pre-installed. Pupils with special needs will also be able to apply for peripherals, such as a tracker ball, and children with more profound needs can apply for a local authority assessment to determine if they qualify for even further assistance.
Although parents are free to use a debit card as before, schools and local authorities have the option of offering to purchase equipment on behalf of families. “It makes things more flexible. Several local authorities have indicated that they would like to make this option available to their parents,” says Niel McLean.
School warns of need to maintain internet service beyond project lifetime
Chris Wood is enthusiastic about the Home Access programme, but he does have one concern: “The computer is yours to keep, but the internet access is only free for the first twelve months. How many families can afford to keep it going?” Niel McLean acknowledges the issue: “What we aim to do is to make the service so good that the families will want to pick up the bill themselves and carry on.” He adds that in addition to the educational benefits that home internet brings, families can use it to access services, interact with the local council and save money through cheaper online offers.
“At the end of the day, families will make a choice on whether they can come up with a convincing argument for continuing,” says Niel McLean. He also thinks that broadband service providers will be keen to keep the families’ custom.
The Home Access scheme will go a long way to helping bridge the digital divide, but at the end of the scheme, there will be still be many households with children that lack a computer and internet connection. It would be good to see the scheme extended further. Neil McLean says: “We are more than happy to continue managing the Home Access programme after March 2011, but that will obviously depend on whether the funding is there.”
January 13-16, Olympia, London
Bett show visitors can find out more about the Home Access scheme on the Becta stand (J40) and the e-Learning Foundation stand (M40).
Niel McLean presents the case for Home Access at Handheld Learning 2009