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ICT - In a supporting role

With IT investment taking a pounding, schools are having to adopt a 'help yourself' attitude to getting the best out of what they have. Jack Kenny reports

With IT investment taking a pounding, schools are having to adopt a 'help yourself' attitude to getting the best out of what they have. Jack Kenny reports

The decline in support for ICT in schools since last year's general election has been severe. The Government white paper The Importance of Teaching hardly mentions ICT; Becta - the ICT in schools agency - has been scrapped, and local authority support teams have been greatly reduced or axed completely.

This is in marked contrast to the previous 10 years, when the amount spent on information technology in UK schools made them some of the best equipped in the world.

So how will schools be supported in getting the most out of ICT? The last survey by Becta claimed that only about 30 per cent of the schools were using ICT well. That leaves a great deal to do, so who will do it?

"From a technical perspective we have developed strong, informal networks," says Mike Herrity, assistant headteacher at Twynham School in Christchurch, Dorset. He believes in using social networks for support. "You need to have people on Twitter," he says. "Just this week a guy sent out a tweet saying that he needed advice on developing a wireless network. We messaged him and gave him our direct number and eventually gave him the advice."

He says the school also uses Twitter to seek advice. When it had a question about new software, the school put it out on Twitter and had six replies. "We are going to see three of the schools to look at their set-up," he adds.

Mr Herrity says secondaries are in a good position to help other schools. "We support our feeder primaries," he says. "One solution is to make sure that they very carefully tuck under the wing of a secondary school and get as much support as they can."

Primary schools can also help themselves. One entrepreneurial model comes from St John's Church School, Orton Goldhay near Peterborough. Simon Hollingsworth, the school's business manager, works with two technicians to support just under 20 primary schools in the Peterborough area.

"We have service-level agreements with schools, which pay for two or three hours of support each week," he says. "Initially it was all technical support, now it is more strategic - about supporting the school to achieve its ICT vision. I work with the ICT co-ordinator on the planning for teaching and learning."

Teaching and learning is also the concern of Naace, the association for ICT teachers. Its chairwoman, Rachel Ager argues that the organisation is getting stronger all the time. "We are a community of those who are passionate about technology in education," she says. "We have the role of bringing that community together."

The association offers online CPD, face-to-face courses, conferences, think-tanks and newsletters. One recent innovation is an online professional development process that enables teachers to learn and accredit their learning through Naace.

Another option is the regional broadband consortia (RBCs), such as the South West Grid for Learning that offer an IT service to schools, or the National Education Network (NEN), a teaching and learning resource. Their depth and breadth of experience are freely available to schools and colleges, says Mel Philipson, head of the Northern Grid for Learning, the RBC for North East England.

The organisation, like the other RBCs, works in partnership with local authorities to provide a regional broadband infrastructure and a wide range of digital online resources for schools, teachers and learners.

"If anyone needs assistance, and it is not available in their own area, using the network we can find people to provide it," says Ms Philipson. "Schools can get resources, advice on broadband and provision of wireless networks." Because of recent changes at Becta and in local authorities, the RBCs and the NEN are the national expertise, she adds.

Commercial companies have expertise too, says Ray Barker of the British Educational Suppliers Association. "The ICT industry does supply a great deal of support through their products," he says.

He says that in the past schools have been reluctant to buy support, but that is now changing. "Schools have to re-think support," he says. "If you do not take support there is a danger that some software will not be used to its maximum, and might even end up in the cupboard."

He believes that budgets will be tighter in the future. "It is probable that in the future schools will have to prove how effective their spending has been," he says.

"They have to realise that support is money. They had support in the past from the local authority and could not see the cost directly." Schools will have to think more precisely about what they are buying, why they are buying it and how they can make the maximum use of their investment, he adds.

Jason Chaplin, services director for leading educational suppliers RM, says the company has a wide range of support and 60 educationalists who spend their working week in school.

"They do everything from working with teachers on lesson plans to planning with heads," he says. "A great deal of the advice is how to get more out of hardware that a school already has."

Most schools have interactive whiteboards. Manufacturer Smart has a national team of education consultants from Steljes, its authorised distributor in the UK, to provide support on the adoption of the technology and integration with other technologies in the classroom. This support is provided free of charge and includes twilight training sessions.

Microsoft has a consistent history of creating free resources through its Partners in Learning network. Steve Beswick, Microsoft Education director UK, says that its schools programme already works on the model of schools developing themselves and learning from each other.

But it will be difficult to replicate the support from a good local authority, warns Ian Usher, e-learning co-ordinator at Buckinghamshire County Council. "They had to support all schools with ICT, not just the ones who were keen and forward looking," he says.

He believes there is a danger that a "help-yourself" approach could create a two-tier system. "We could well find that there will be a gap opening up between those schools who have their finger on the pulse and those who are unaware," Mr Usher adds.

"Support, or the lack of it, can stifle a school. If the technology does not work well it will hamper development right across the curriculum."

Support tips

Work with other schools to share expertise and resources.

Learn about good ICT practice from other schools and attendance at conferences.

Be specific about what you need.

Use data to be sure that what you buy and use is going to raise attainment.

If you buy support, make sure it is what you want to receive, not what the company wants to give.

Ensure that support is independent and current.

Differentiate between technical support and curriculum support.

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