New deal on way for Irish schools

Jack Kenny

Despite the breakdown of the Trilith deal, Northern Ireland schools are not about to be left high and dry, reports Jack Kenny

Schools in Northern Ireland can still look forward to assistance with most of their immediate needs for hardware, software, bandwidth, training and maintenance following the breakdown of one of the largest and most ambitious information and communications technology (ICT) procurement exercises ever conducted in the UK. The deal between the Department of Education Northern Ireland (Deni) and Trilith (a consortium including RM and ICL) to supply ICT hardware and services was said to be worth pound;300 million over 10 years.

Tom McMullan, director of the Computerised Local Administration System for Schools (CLASS) and part of Deni, describes the outcome of the negotiations as "a disappointment but not a disaster". The alternative strategy devised by McMullan is looking for the same outcomes for schools, but with a wider range of companies offering increased competition. And a major rewrite of the curriculum could see Northern Ireland schools at the forefront of ICT use. "The ICT marketplace is vibrant and innovative and we look forward to working with a range of partners," says McMullan.

The two major ICT initiatives in Northern Ireland are CLASS and Classroom 2000, which deals with the curriculum. A major principle has always been the concept of an overall ICT solution for all the schools in the province. Deni believes that now it is well on the way to creating a coherent policy for ICT: hardware, software and training.

Aradical revision of the whole curriculum, the first in the UK, is also under way and will complete the process. John Anderson, the education technology strategy co-ordinator for Northern Ireland, characterises the review as focusing the attention on process and generic skills rather than on knowledge. The early indications are that the review will create the basis for radical use of the technology.

Schools in Northern Ireland have been very concerned by the breakdown of the Trilith deal. However, McMullan, who has directed previous strategies, claims the alternative will result in a faster rollout across the province and a better "refresh rate" - equipment changed or upgraded every three years instead of five. Twelve ICT suppliers accredited by the Government as "managed service providers" have already expressed an interest in contributing to the work.

Under the strategy, a typical primary school will be entitled to approximately 36 state-of-the-art computers depending on the size of the school. Schools will have the freedom to request fewer desktops and have additional peripherals such as scanners or whiteboards. There will be an expectation that most technology will be deployed in teaching areas. A secondary school will receive around 140 computers. With their existing machines, that will bring the computerpupil ratio down below English levels.

Education minister Martin McGuinness is behind the strategy. In January he stopped the publication of examination results and league tables and has also instituted a review of the 11-plus.

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