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Deadline signal for elc spree

DfES hopes to avoid cash return to the Treasury, says Jack Kenny

Schools are going to have to spend their Electronic Learning Credits (ELCs) at the rate of pound;9 million a month between now and August. That is the message coming from the educational software community which is worried in case a substantial portion of the pound;100 million ELCs remains unspent and is returned to the Treasury.

The average primary school currently has pound;4,000-pound;5,000 in ELCs (Electronic Learning Credits) to spend on digital materials. In April a similar amount will be released by the Department for Education and Skills (DfES). A large secondary school is likely to have pound;15,000 now and a further pound;15,000 in April. The DfES is refusing to reveal the extent of the underspend, even though it is provided with accurate sales information from educational suppliers once a month. Its figures would probably confirm the widespread estimate that nearly pound;80 million pounds remains unspent, and the DfES is likely to repeat the publicity blitz it launched last year when it was worried that the money would either be spent at the last possible moment or, even more embarrassing, would not be spent at all. This, coming on top of the continued poor performance of its Curriculum Online website, designed as a one-stop shop through which schools could spend their ELCs, would be a political faux pas. (It is understood that responsibility for Curriculum Online and ELCs will soon be passed from the DfES to Becta.) ELCs were issued to schools to offset the impact in the commercial marketplace of the free BBC Digital Curriculum materials when they eventually appear - probably not until 2006. This should help independent software vendors to prepare new products to compete with the "free" BBC material (after a while the BBC could introduce charges).

A complication for the DfES is that the European Commission, which looked at the BBC proposal, has put the UK government on notice with a ruling that the BBC will only be able to continue to produce its curriculum if the DfES softens the impact that the BBC will have on the market, ie by continuing ELCs every year until the BBC materials emerge.

The European ruling pleases Lewis Bronze, boss of Espresso Learning, whose online service won two awards at this year's BETT educational technology show. He sees it as a great opportunity for schools. "If a school is unsure about how to spend the money they should talk to their local schools, LEA advisers or heads in beacon schools." The decisions and the research are the responsibility of a school's senior management team, he insists. "Don't delegate it to your ICT staff. This is a great deal of money and it has to be spent across the curriculum, not just on ICT. Go to the Becta website, read the magazines, talk to schools that are recognised for good practice."

Bronze suggests some questions that schools should ask before spending: "Are we going to be able to use this in our school with our set up in order to raise standards? Is it going to save teachers' time and motivate pupils? Is it going to play a part in transforming what we do? If you can't answer, 'Yes, Yes, Yes,' then it is not for you."

Ray Barker, director of the British Educational Suppliers Association (BESA) is concerned about the amount still to be spent by August. Barker said schools would to have to spend at the rate of about pound;9 million a month from now until August.

There are some contributory factors for the apparent reluctance to spend.

One local authority adviser pointed out the lack of broadband in some areas. One authority only has two of its secondary schools on broadband, and its teachers consequently have no idea of the excitement and potential unleashed by some of the new software and content available. In addition, large numbers of teachers still do not have personal access to ICT and are not in the habit of using ICT in their lessons. And the poor search facilities of Curriculum Online still confuse many teachers.

Publishing director of Spark Learning, Nick Kind, has sympathy with teachers and points out that software is more difficult to evaluate than a book. "You just can't flick through it. We do, however, want a market where people can evaluate software with a degree of sophistication. Informed consumers will benefit everyone."

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