Last month, government technology agency Becta published a report powerful enough to register on a seismic scale. The subject is innocuous enough - schools' management information systems - but its findings are shattering:
"Iincreases in the order of 300 per cent over three years in relation to licensing costs..." "...considerable impediments to maximising the potential value for money."
In plain words, it means schools are paying over the odds for services that aren't much use. This should be a national outrage, as it calls into question the ways in which IT services are designed and sold to schools.
We are at an educational crossroads - there is our paper past and a potential electronic future. Until recently, this future seemed unclear.
There has been no single driving force committed to integrating the power and potential of ICT into educational practice. Now the Department for Education and Skills has created a Technology Directorate, headed by Michael Stevenson. It is the time to challenge the IT industry to understand the needs and problems of education, and to see the huge opportunity it represents.
Education should be springing to life through technology, which should be solving educational dilemmas - children learning foreign languages in primary schools and involving parents in their child's schooling.
Technology should fuel personalised learning. It should make it possible for children to learn when they want to and not to have to wait until an adult is ready to teach them.
My experience over the past seven or eight years is that innovative use of technology has been driven by educationists, not by technologists. That is hugely disappointing.
The reasons for the failure of this partnership are complex. Part of the problem is that as a nation we have the idea of "choice for schools" wrong.
Imagine if, as citizens, we each had the freedom to choose which currency to use in England. Some of us might choose the yen, some the euro, some the pound. We might all feel content with our choices, but when we go to a supermarket we find long queues at the till. And we find that prices are high because the shopkeeper has to carry the cost of currency exchange.
Here, individual choice has diverted attention from the real choices we might want - choices that ought to be about the range of products available, competitive price and about shops being open when convenient to us, the consumers. Choice is excellent. But when pitched wrongly it becomes counter-intuitive. When choice trips us up, we have to wonder whether we have the basics right.
Choice is not the only issue. In summer 2005, Farnborough Sixth Form College became the first to make A-level results available over the internet, via a secure internet site. It has taken five years into the 21st century to invent this basic service. And even more eye-opening is the fact that the service was developed by Jeremy Skinner, a former student, not by a multi-national IT services provider. Services such as that designed by Jeremy should be bread and butter aspects of decent school management and information systems.
Yet when I talk to IT companies such as Cisco, Microsoft and LogicaCMG, they don't see education as a sector that is ripe for education-specific innovations. They aren't busy designing the educational personal assistant, rather than the business-person's PDA. They aren't forming teams of technologists and designers to create an educational PlayStation. These companies say that no IT multi-national will employ a salesforce to walk around the UK's 20,000 schools to sell its latest products and services.
Like so much in education, good services are often the result of head teachers providing the leadership and vision that secures innovation. But there is also a strategic partnership to be brokered between the technology companies, schools' thirst for high-quality solutions and teachers (and students like Jeremy) who have an idea or two.
I have two challenges. One is that the IT sector explains what we need to change about education before it takes up the challenge. I want the same creativity and investment in education that has gone into the development of entertaining and engaging products such as Sony PlayStation and the iPod.
The other is more a hope, which is that Becta's report on Management Information Systems is the first of several challenges to come from Becta.
Maybe it will provide an opportunity for educators and technologists to design a more fertile relationship. Becta's report merits a brave response.
Martin Ripley is head of e-Strategy with the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority
The QCA's vision for e-assessment by 2009
* All new qualifications should include an option for on-screen assessment, all awarding bodies should be set up to accept and assess e-portfolios
* GCSEs, AS and A2 examinations available on-screen
* National Curriculum tests available on screen
* On-demand assessments will begin to be a feature of GCSEs
* Ten new qualifications, designed for electronic delivery and assessment, should be developed, accredited and live www.qca.org.uk7192.html
* New e-portfolios for GCSE In 2004, the QCA commissioned project eSCAPE to start development of a DT e-portfolio (page 11). The prototype e-portfolio will be built by Goldsmiths College. It will introduce handheld technologies into students'
GCSE project work. This reflects the revolutionary ways in which DT studios and workshops use digital technology. The portfolio element of DT at GCSE level must allow students to show how they exploit new technologies to record and design ideas and solutions.
* The future of e-assessment
The QCA's ground-breaking e-assessment project, developing an innovative test of ICT for key stage 3 has been shortlisted for two national awards.
The QCA is developing an IT solution for delivering leading-edge technology to every secondary school. This year, a national pilot was successfully completed with more than 45,000 pupils across the country participating in the first on-screen KS3 ICT test. The tests have been shortlisted in two categories of the national Computing Awards: Public Sector Project of the Year and Innovative Project of the Year.
Download a copy of "School Management Information Systems and Value for Money" at: www.becta.org.ukcorporatepublicationsdocumentsmis_%20report(revised-for- web).pdf