Radical, bold, ambitious, transforming. These are just some of the adjectives used to describe the Building Schools for the Future (BSF) project, which aims to "provide world class, 21st century schools, with environments that will inspire learning for decades".
The multi-billion-pound project is being driven by the Department for Education and Skills and Partnerships for Schools, a publicprivate partnership. The aim is to rebuild or regenerate all secondary schools over the next 10-15 years; half of allocated funding will be used to build brand new schools. The authority has consulted students on what they would like to see in their schools of the future.
The programme is exciting, but its success will be judged not so much by the smart new buildings that emerge, but by what happens inside them. As Nigel Ward, managing director of Granada Learning, who is involved in setting up the North Liverpool City Academy, puts it: "The school of the future isn't necessarily the same as the building of the future." Tim Pearson, RM's chief executive, says: "The radical thinking will come from the technology enabling radical teaching and learning."
There's no doubt that computer technology will play an important role in the new schools, whether it's for learning, teaching, management, administration or strengthening community links. And the amount of money allocated to ICT in the programme is impressive: the total capital injection is pound;1,675 per pupil place. How this money is spent will have a significant impact on ICT resources - and the way they are used.
David Burrows, director of education at Microsoft, warns. "We need to think carefully about what we put into these schools and see how we can help learners learn when and where they want to."
Tim Pearson would like to see the new schools include personalised systems that track attendance, targets and outcomes. "There should be fewer formal environments and smaller rooms for pupils and technology," he says.
The good news is that the ICT programme in Building Schools for the Future is not technology-led, as Steve Moss, education ICT adviser for the project, notes. "We're not producing a technical spec for BSF but an output specification - 'this is what we want ICT to enable us to do in terms of teaching or administration'. This raises a technical challenge to the industry. We're saying to [bidding supplier] companies, 'Whatever solution you propose must exceed the emerging functionality specifications Becta is producing, for example, for learning platforms.' We want to ensure that BSF will deliver the e-strategy."
There have been a number of proposed solutions. In one case, it has been suggested that students use thin clients (network-based computers) linked to smart-card technology, so they can log on to any computer anywhere on the school campus and instantly see their personal desktop.
One of the most surprising moves in the programme is that ICT will be contracted out to an area-wide managed service. This is diametrically opposed to the theme of the new Education White Paper, which stresses greater autonomy for schools and devolving powers from local authorities to schools. But even the White Paper acknowledges that, when it comes to some forms of procurement, an authority-wide solution is more efficient and cost-effective.
Under the BSF programme, schools will use managed services run by Local Educational Partnerships or publicprivate partnerships. The cost of the managed service to schools is expected to be around pound;60-100 per pupil. Moss says, until now, the impact of managed services in education has been small. "With the exception of areas such as Dudley and Northern Ireland, there has been a wide failure by schools to take up managed services. This will be a big move for many schools."
Around 10-20 per cent of a school's ICT budget will be available for it to make individual choices. It remains to be seen whether some schools will find having control of 10-20 per cent of their budget is flexible enough for their needs.
Nineteen ICT suppliers are involved in the first stage of the procurement process, including a mix of established educational ICT suppliers, such as RM, Viglen and Ramesys, and newcomers such as IBM and Sun Microsystems. First wave schools have chosen a mix of suppliers. The first new schools are expected to open in 2008.
What really matters is how schools use ICT to enhance teaching and learning. As Ward notes, we don't simply want more of the same - nor do we want to re-invent the wheel and discard the effective ICT practices that already exist. What we should be aiming for is getting ICT embedded into the fabric of the school, and aiming to use it imaginatively and with even greater flexibility than today.