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Don't be afraid of techie talk

Decisions on computer systems should not be left to the boffins, writes John Castleford

SCHOOLS are in the forefront of the e-revolution. That's the belief out there and anyone with half an eye on the global future knows we must not fail to get schools involved in preparing the next generation for the 21st century.

Governors are legally responsible for many things in their schools, but how much do they actually know about what goes on in these days of hi-tech online developments?

If the accounts showed that the headteacher had flown first-class with the school's secretary to the Seychelles for a week's conference at a five-star hotel, there is no doubt that the right eyebrow of most governors would rise a millimetre or two and that questions would follow.

But when it comes to information and communications technology, virtually all governors immediately fall into rubber-stamping mode.

Any mention of ICT is guaranteed to elicit two ubiquitous responses: self-confessed ignorance (often proudly proclaimed) and instant abrogation of all responsibility to the school's bespectacled anorak-wearing techies "who know about that sort of thing".

Perhaps it is a fear of contagion with the world of computers - and with some justification. Who in their right mind wants to deal with gigaflops, broadband MIPS, twisted pair Ethernet and token ring

But delegation of ICT matters is nothing less than a total hand-over. Governing bodies have a statutory responsibility to oversee the curriculum, and ICT is a compulsory element in all subject areas as well as a subject of study in its own right. It is also playing a greater role in administration and management. So governors need to be better informed.

That doesn't mean taking a doctorate in information systems, learning object-orientated programming, surfing the net, being mouse-happy, or even shopping for an anorak.

All that is needed is to ask some simple questions at board meetings:

Do governors know the implications of connecting up to the Internet?

Does wiring up the school mean unleashing a flood of pornography and if it did how would they know?

Will pupils (or teachers) be able to distinguish between a genuine history site and one maintained by revisionist neo-Nazis in disguise?

Does being comfortable with technology mean that children will become socially-withdrawn loners interacting with keyboards rather than other kids?

Most importantly, governors must ask to what extent learning and teaching is being enhanced by ICT.

Such questions should not unleash a tirade of techie-speak, nor vague aspirations about how good it will be for the school to be connected to a digital world of unlimited knowledge. ICT is often characterised as a tool. But so often it becomes a master in its own right. By staying focused on this last question, everything should fall more securely into place.

Indeed, if governors keep the question of educational benefits uppermost, they will be able to regain effective governance. Other questions can follow, such as the budgetary issues that need to be confronted.

All these wonderful presumed benefits have a cost. How much is this hi-tech paradise going to cost? In business, it's well-known that buying a computer may represent only 25 per cent of the total costs of ownership. How can value for money be identified? How will teachers be trained?

A governing body that is perceived to have neither the wit to understand nor an interest in technology is a prime target for waffle, obfuscation and technical dazzle. Failure to ask simple questions means that control passes from you, the governor, to an anorak-wearer with multiple syllables in his speech.

But get answers to the question of educational benefits, and life becomes so much simpler.

Which should leave time to ask the headteacher about that trip to the Seychelles....

John Castleford is an information and communications technology consultant

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