Behind the hardware

Roger Frost delves into a government survey which suggests that there have never been so many computers in classrooms. We are world leaders in IT in schools," said Education Minister Eric Forth in responding to the latest Department for Education survey of information technology, which showed that 94 per cent of secondary school pupils and virtually all primary pupils in England get hands-on experience of computers.

While your own quick survey in school should be enough to check if someone is pulling your mouse cable, this summary of IT in English schools does at least show how schools compare. It seems there are more computers, more confident staff and more money is being spent nearly Pounds 200 million pounds and nearly double that since the last report in 1992.

The March 1994 survey has taken ages to appear. Late, yes, but it shows that the average secondary school gained 27 computers over two years to bring its stock up to 85 machines. Ten years ago they had 13. The average primary school gained three computers in the same time, and has a well- rounded 10 machines compared to its sad 1.7 machines of 10 years ago.

If it's any consolation, the classroom is actually gaining computers faster than pupils: secondary schools had 10 pupils to every computer in 1994 compared to the 60 of 1984. And the progress in the primaries is even better: they have 18 pupils per computer compared to the seriously eye-strained 107 pupils of 1984.

Almost half the primary equipment is more than five years old while for secondary schools the figure is over a third.

Nearly two-thirds of the computers in primary schools come from Acorn - 29 per cent are the newer Archimedes types and 39 per cent are BBCs. Research Machines has a one-fifth share 13 per cent are its older Nimbus 186, while the rest are later machines.

This points to a fall for RM in primary, while in secondary schools its better 27 per cent share is split in equal measure between its Nimbus 186 models and its later ones. Funny that there's the same equal balance of Acorn's BBCs and Archimedes but their overall share is a more juicy 41 per cent.

Surprisingly, no other manufacturer manages to have a significant share of the micros in a school, but everyone's figures must be skewed by redundant machines still claiming lines in the stock book, and, remember, these figures are a year out of date already.

A secondary school in a relatively prosperous area spends some Pounds 32,000 on equipment, while the schools in the poorer areas spend Pounds 21,000. Actually there's nothing here to explain this, not even the idea of parents coming up with the readies: in the secondaries parents contribute only 2 per cent of the school's total IT spend that's just under Pounds 500 and virtually the same amount as 10 years ago. The primaries are doing rather better pro rata: here parents annually generated 30 per cent of their IT spend. Ten years back that was under Pounds 100, today it approaches Pounds 2,000 and some school somewhere is clocking Pounds 4,000 plus.

Giving perhaps a hint of renewed Government interest in IT in special needs, there are figures for using micros with children in mainstream as well as, for the first time, separate figures for special schools. For example, in a special school you will find five pupils per computer and 15 machines per school. Each school spends nearly Pounds 3,000. But as this is a first timer, there are no earlier figures to highlight any progress.

There are encouraging figures showing that more than half of primary teachers used IT twice a week; three-quarters of secondary departments used IT in their teaching and over a third of headteachers (or a quarter in primary) thought that IT made a substantial contribution to learning. But you'll also find gems which counter common sense: how come one third of secondary teachers make regular use of micros, and the figure hasn't changed in 10 years?

Yet there are serious concerns about the support schools can call upon. "Although the amount of hardware has increased in schools quite dramatically, the amount of support is down particularly in subject support," says Bill Tagg of NAACE, the computer advisers' and inspectors' association whose members are largely employed by local education authorities.

"It's still very hard for schools to exploit the newer technologies, such as CD-Rom," he says. "Schools are tending to live on their fat. Many are reluctant to pay money to get advice that was once free."

Still, there is hope. While the Government's new school effectiveness grant does not earmark money specifically for IT, a school could decide to do just that. In that case, Bill Tagg concludes, "schools will find they've got more to spend on IT than in the past. If that grant continued, they could make a significant IT spend every four years instead of papering the cracks every year. That's good."

Eric Forth should be buoyant. At a recent NAACE conference, he acknowledged this need for support, discussed its future and softened some of his critics. He also brought another Pounds 2million for the primary schools CD-Rom scheme. Now that's a great way of winning friends.

Statistical bulletin 395: Survey of information technology in schools. From DFE Analytical Services Branch, Mowden Hall, Staindrop Road, Darlington, DL3 9BG. Tel: 0325 392683.

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