School computer 'lifeline for sick pupils' barely used

Teachers can use computers to reach pupils in their own homes

A computer program that parents believe could be a lifeline for sick children who cannot attend school is hardly being used, the BBC has learned.

That is despite a huge training programme and expensive equipment being fitted in classrooms.

Education Minister John O'Dowd wants to know why people are not using the system.

The Elluminate system can beam a sick pupil's lesson live into a home computer.

Students can see the white board and the teacher and can even ask questions. The program has been available since September 2011 and more than 1,200 teachers have been trained to use it.

However, despite training and the availability of the system, it is hardly being used.

The equipment is all in place but one union is said to have refused to allow its members to use it for home based pupils.

The BBC asked the NAS/UWT several times over the last week, in writing and by phone, to explain its opposition. But the union has not responded.

Another union is shocked that the system is so little known, but, nevertheless, expresses reservations.

'Isolated'

Avril Hall-Callaghan of the Ulster Teachers' Union (UTU) said: "I would worry about someone else maybe using it in a way that they could perhaps spy on the class. As you know, we have a lot of paedophiles around. Those are the kind of issues that really do need to be discussed."

Karen Lavery's daughter has been at home for a month because of a mixture of conditions, including Asperger's.

It means that she cannot bear to sit in a noisy class with other pupils. Elluminate could be a solution.

"She cannot manage to sit in the class with everybody else and learn. But she would be able to access the lessons, access her classes, ask questions of the teachers," said Karen.

"She would not be sitting at home feeling isolated. I have talked to so many mothers whose children are in the same position."

The Children's Law Centre has been researching why the system is not being used. It costs schools nothing, whereas home tutoring for just a few hours a week comes at a price.

Liam Mackle, advice manager with the centre, said: "What has to be everybody's guiding principle in this is what is best for these pupils.

"What is best for pupils at school and what is in the best interests for those pupils who, for a variety of reasons, cannot attend school.

"If they are able to get as close to a school education off-site as possible, then I think everybody has to be looking at this as a serious option."

It seems the problem is a mixture of ignorance of the system and reluctance on the part of teachers.

The Department of Education's computer service said it was up to schools to take advantage of the facility.

Now the minister for education has said that if there is a problem, then it should be solved.

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