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Finally caught the computer bug

Primaries and secondaries have been pouring cash into ICT over the past two years. John Howson reports

ENGLAND'S primary and secondary schools have been spending unprecedented sums on computers over the past two years.

There was a lull in ICT spending at the end of the 1990s, when the average number of computers per school rose only slowly each year. But there has been a spurt in spending since the turn of the millennium. The national ICT survey, conducted by the Department for Education and Skills, shows that the average number of computers in primary and secondary schools has jumped by almost 50 per cent during the past two years.

Primaries are now spending pound;15,000 a year on computers on average, and secondaries, pound;77,000. This equates to pound;58 for every primary pupil and pound;88 for every secondary student (these figures include technical support, software, training and internet access costs).

Earlier this year, the average primary had 31 computers. These were mostly free-standing machines, the majority of which were probably classroom-based PCs. Less than one in five was connected to a network and 42 per cent were more than three years old. By contrast, the average secondary now has around 150 computers. And the buying spree of the past two years means that only a third are more than three years old - the lowest percentage on record.

A much higher percentage of secondary school computers are networked (87 per cent). Does this suggest that many of them are in designated computer areas with relatively few available for daily use by subject specialists? Primary schools now average fewer than 10 pupils per computer - excluding those used for administration purposes - and secondary schools, six pupils per machine. Only four years ago the comparable figures were 18 in primaries and nine in secondaries. So it seems that the recently-purchased hardware is being used to aid teaching and learning rather than for extra administration.

However, full use of the technology will only be achieved when the one in four teachers who still does not feel confident about using ICT in the curriculum gains the necessary skills. Helping these teachers remains the biggest challenge if ICT is to make a real impact in our schools.

John Howson is a director of Education Data Surveys and a visiting professor at Oxford Brookes University. Email john.howson@lineone.net

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