One of the things I was really interested in seeing at BETT was BECTA’s Home Access programme, which is now rolling out nationally to provide children in low income families with computer and internet access. This is a fantastic step in the right direction towards removing the digital divide, the effects of which I have already witnessed in my first months of teaching.
However, there are a few problems with it that I feel need to be addressed before it can truly achieve what it should be aiming for. Dawn Hallybone has written about the issues she has with the form filling process that must go on for this to happen, and this will undoubtedly be something of a barrier. For our school parents with English as a second language may require some assistance to fill out the forms, which will require them to come into school and specialist support to be provided. The multi stage nature of the process (call them up, receive a form, send it back, provide evidence in some cases) will put off some parents, and prevent some children from accessing this hugely powerful resource. As a colleague of mine stated, this is a middle class process for a non-middle class audience.
These are barriers, but they are not insurmountable. Hopefully schools will provide the support needed. To my mind the thing that dilutes the vision of home access is the fact that those taking it up will only be provided with a grant for 1 years worth of internet access (I believe through a 3G dongle). I found myself in some confusion when talking to the BECTA representative as I completed assumed that this access would be sustained with some kind of follow up grants. His argument was that in their trials once families had experienced the benefits of the programme many of them reprioritised their expenditure when they came to an end and took up connections unsupported. I would be interested to see the statistics on this, but never the less think this is missing the point somewhat.
To me the whole point of schemes like this is to free children from determinism of opportunities by their background. I am sure many families will reprioritise, but a significant number will never do so. To say they will is to fail to recognise that some families in this country still exist with no disposable income, and some parents have no interest in making sacrifices to give their children opportunities. If we are to eradicate the digital divide, and not merely stave it off whilst making it smaller but more acute, we need a programme that sites access to learning resources as a continuing right, not a one off project.
Hopefully this is a first step towards that aim, and if you are a teacher I urge you to visit the site, download the information and spread the word to parents.