Never has so much money been spent on ICT in education in such a short period of time. Between 1998 and 2004, some pound;1.8 billion will have been invested in the National Grid for Learning and teacher training by the Department for Education and Employment (DFEE), New Opportunities Fund and LEAs. The most tangible evidence of this investment is in the growing number of computers in classrooms. The British Educational Suppliers Association (Besa) says there are around one million computers in schools and, according to the latest DFEE figures, the computer to pupil ratio in primary schools has fallen from 1:17.6 in 1998 to 1:12.6 in 2000. For secondary schools, the figures are 1:8.7 and 1:7.9 respectively.
Another sign of the growth in the educational ICT sector was the number of exhibitors at this year's British Education and Training Technology (BETT) Show, some of whom had previously focused on the corporate sector. Ray Fleming, RM's secondary school business manager, says the days when the educational ICT market was a cottage industry have long gone: "We estimate that schools will spend around pound;500 million on ICT this year, excluding NOF funding. I know one school that is the largest ICT purchaser in its town."
Two new developments in ICT funding will be welcomed by schools. The first is the news that NGFL funding is to be extended by two years, with the government providing an additional pound;139 million per year of matched funding available for the years 2002-2004. The second is the decision to allow next year's Standards Funding (starting April 1, 2001) to be rolled over to the following summer term rather than having to be spent by 31 March 2002. "It's a sensible move because it means schools can plan ahead and not worry about racing to spend it at the end of the financial year," says Ray Barker, Besa's director.
NGFL funding has driven the educational ICT market, but it should not be forgotten that schools have invested much of their own budgets in the technology too. Primary schools spend an average of pound;8,300 on ICT, compared with pound;3,600 in 1998. For secondary schools the figures are pound;50,100 and pound;40,100 respectively. On average, NGFL funding accounts for 30 per cent of a primary school's total ICT expenditure and just 18 per cent for secondary schools.
Other sources of ICT funding include sponsorship deals and grants from European, Government, private and charitable programmes - the British Educational Communications and Technology Agency (Becta) notes that there are more than 30 educational ICT funding programmes outside the NGFL. Parents have also played their part in equipping schools with ICT equipment via activities such as PTA events and participating in supermarket schemes like Tesco's Computers for Schools. The latter is in its tenth year and has provided pound;62.5 million of ICT resources, including 42,000 computers.
The new top-up NGFL money comes with some strings attached. LEAs taking it up must be committed to reducing the computer to pupil ratio by 2002 to 1:11 in primary schools and 1:7 in secondary schools. They must also ensure that all schools are connected to the Internet (20 per cent of them having a broadband connection). Much of the NGFL money has been spent on creating the infrastructure - putting boxes on desktops and connecting them to each other and to the Internet. But some are concerned by the way some schools are doing this: "Some secondary schools have put powerful computers and sopisticated networks into computer suites and simply shifted the old machines into other areas. This is not the best way of sharing resources," says Linda Spear, recently chair of the National Association of Advisers for Computers in Education (NAACE).
Tim Clark, RM's business development manager, says: "The Government is pushing the need to lower the computer-to-pupil ratio and so schools are buying more and more boxes. But they're also asking: 'where are we going to put all of these machines?'" One solution is to purchase laptop PCs, which are smaller and can be transported around a school on a trolley. Clark adds that a logical extension to purchasing a set of laptops is to buy a wireless network, so they can be used almost anywhere in a school.
Laptops are also being bought to bridge the gap between home and school learning. Microsoft's Anytime Anywhere Learning programme, which is based around pupils owning their own laptops, has more than 500 schools signed up for it. The City of Nottingham plans to provide every child in the city with a laptop. The e-learning Foundation and the Education Rewards Scheme have been set up to help low-income families buy or rent laptops, and their role could grow in the near future:
"Kids already bring their own pens and pencils into schools and so why not a computer if it's an essential tool? It's a debate that is splitting the educational world," notes Fleming. Warwick University has said that new students could soon be expected to own laptops, and the question is: which school or sixth form college will follow this lead?
As ICT becomes more sophisticated, it becomes more difficult for schools to manage, and so out-sourcing it to an external party looks attractive. This is the concept behind managed services, but so far, schools have been slow to take them up, at least the Government model of a managed service. Becta has no official figures and RM says it has signed up 450 schools to what it regards as managed services.
The purchasing of educational software has not been a great as some would have hoped either. "Fifteen per cent of NGFL money is supposed to be reserved for software, which I see is now being referred to as 'digital content'," notes Ray Barker, "we would therefore expect schools to be spending some pound;30 million a year on software, but my members are not seeing anything like this size of expenditure."
David Burrows, Microsoft's head of education, believes that the time is right to change the focus of ICT purchasing: '"It's basically been about building the infrastructure, but I think we should stop talking about improving the computerpupil ratio or the number of schools connected to the Internet. The debate needs to be about how we use ICT more effectively."
But this can only happen if the Government funding of educational ICT continues - and there is no guarantee that this will happen. "Schools have invested huge amounts of money on computers and on the infrastructure, and the question is: what will happen when they need replacing and the money is not there?" asks Chris Price, head of IT at Birmingham LEA. "Schools could be faced with an invidious choice - employ more teachers or buy more computers."
The Government needs to send a clear signal, says Chris Thatcher, chair of the ICT committee of the National Association of Head Teachers: "The Government has done a good job, but we need to see the colour of their money over the next four or five years." In early May, when the general election is expected to take place, we should get a clearer picture of where ICT funding goes from here.
George Cole is a freelance journalist and a former teacher
BECTA has produced a list of sources of ICT funding, which can be found at www.becta.org.ukstartfunding.html