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Learning to govern the use of ICT in schools

Once it was a topic that got the occasional nod from the governors, but now choosing ICT is a lot more complicated process than ever before. reports

Until very recently, governors had relatively little to do with information technology. The head uttered a need for another computer, the governors accepted on trust, peered into the piggy bank, or sold the minibus, or sent a begging letter to the PTA and, in the fullness of time, another Archimedes or RM PC came along, bringing a little nearer the target of one per classroom.

Now, though, looking after ICT is serious stuff. NGFL funding has brought many thousands of pounds worth of equipment to schools of even modest size, and there are big decisions to be made about managed services, about Internet access and not least, of course, about the New Opportunities Funded ICT training for teachers. Don Wilson, a governor at Cleves Junior in Weybridge, is just one who worries about this. He is concerned that schools now have large ICT assets and no year-on-year funding to keep them up to date.

"Coming from the business world, you notice that schools don't do asset accounting. There might be pound;100,000 worth of equipment, and you should be writing it down over four or five years - but there's no way in a school budget you can cope with that. It's quite worrying." He is also concerned about the costs and practicalities of maintenance now that school systems are more sophisticated.

"Once you get into server-based networks and complex software you can find that teachers are spending time maintaining it when they should be teaching."

On the plus side, at least Cleves Junior has a governor who understands the issues and can ask the questions - Don Wilson has had extensive experience of IT in business. Not all schools are so lucky, which is why many local authorities want governing bodies, as a matter of good practice, to nominate an "IT Governor" alongside the existing specialist literacy, numeracy and SEN governors.

This proposal, however, opens up a number of questions, not least of which is whether there is someone on the governing body who can actually do the job. One organisation which has its doubts about this is "Japonite" (Joint Advisory Panel on Information Technology in Education) which made a submission on the subject last year to the House of Commons Education and Employment Committee. After reviewing the various ways that governors are appointed or elected, the submission goes on to say: "This method makes no provision for specialist governorsI Japonite questions the view that any reasonable well-educated person can fill any of these positions and hence regards this lack of provision as a major shortcoming."

What is needed, they suggest, is that governing bodies be able to co-opt specialist ICT governors, whose names would be kept on a central register by the DFEE. In this way people with ICT experience could become governors more quickly than is possible through the present route which involves registering with a local authority and then waiting for a vacancy.

Lest heads and teachers start to bridle here, let it be quickly said that Japonite is not suggesting that ICT experts from the business world should swan into schools with ready made solutions. Their submission says: "The first need for a newly appointed governor coming from outside education (and in particular from industry) is to come to terms with the school culture."

Phil Hemmings, corporate affairs director at RM plc - himself a governor in further education, emphasises this point. He also says that scools and IT governors need to be clear about what sort of support is helpful and what is not.

"If you get someone who is a systems professional, bringing technical expertise, but not educational understanding, that seems inappropriate," he says. "It would be wrong to recruit a governor because you might save money on technical support."

Writing in Japonite's online Governors' Journal he develops this point. "The easy thing to do is to focus on the technology. You can touch it and see it and it costs a lot of money. What you can't do with technology alone is make an impact on teaching and learning. To do that you need a vision, a stragety, some tactics and staff buy-in."

So if they are not meant to poke in the backs of computer with screwdrivers, what are governing bodies to do - led or guided by their ICT governor?

Part of the answer is in Japonite's submission to the Commons Committee, which contains a suggested outline of The Role and Duties of the IT Governor. It begins: "The IT governor should take the lead in the compilation and annual review and update of an IT strategy for the school."

It then goes on to list the components of the strategy - most of which focus on the need for ICT to support teaching and learning. The IT governor could also, Japonite suggests, make sure that the school is getting best value for money in all of its financial dealings in ICT.

Phil Hemmings sees the task partly in terms of asking the right questions about any proposed ICT project - namely: "What key educational benefit does the project deliver? Would we want these benefits irrespective of the technology? Will technology allow us to deliver the benefits more efficiently?" With all of this in mind, a suggested plan of action for a new ICT governor - someone perhaps with ICT experience in business - might look something like this:

* Spend as much time as possible evaluating what ICT hardware and software the school already has, and what it does with it.

* Find out as much as you possibly can about the way the main curriculum subjects are taught, taking note of how ICT fits in.

* Find out what the Government and the authority are saying about ICT in the school curriculum.

* Look at, and understand, the differences between using ICT to administer and manage the school and the curriculum on the one hand, and using it to support learning in the classroom on the other.

* After listening and looking, find just one strategic or tactical point where you think your own expertise has something to offer. Make the case and see if it seems to be judged helpful and sensible. If it does, be encouraged to find others.

* Always report back to the governing body. If you have time, do this in writing, so it becomes a running record.

* With the head and staff, develop a vision of where the school will be with ICT, perhaps in a year's time and also beyond. Check with the finance committee about the budgetary implications.

Japonite - the Joint Advisory Panel on Information Technology in Education was formed in 1993 to advise Governnment on IT in education, "from the viewpoint of the IT community as distinct from that of educationalists". It represents the British Computer Society, the Institution of Electrical Engineers, the Institute for the Management of Information Systems, the National Training Organisation for Information Technology, the Real Time Club (a forum for senior IT professionals) the Telecommunications Managers Association and the Worshipful Company of Information

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