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No need for screwdrivers: the experts are at hand

Why not let ICL maintain your computers for you? Arnold Evans sees the future in Bristol.

Those of us who write about IT in education are generally profligate with the superlatives. We focus on silver linings and make light of the accompanying clouds - hi-tech and high hopes go hand-in-hand. In fact, schools embarking on ambitious IT projects face inevitable problems. There is never quite enough equipment, and it's never quite up to the job. Too few of the teachers have the necessary technical expertise and they often find it difficult to integrate the new technology seamlessly into the old curriculum.

But it is not like that at Withywood in Bristol, where nine primaries, a secondary and a special school are participating in The Bristol Education On Line Network (BEON). Running since January of last year, the scheme is the most ambitious of the Department for Education and Employment's 23 superhighways initiatives. BT and the computer giant ICL have equipped the schools with equipment worth more than Pounds 2 million. Each school has been given: a network of multimedia machines; colour printers; powerful wideband telecommunication links; video-enhanced desktop conferencing equipment; permanent access to the Internet; an intranet to link the schools to one another; the SIR (Systems Integrated Research) "open" integrated learning system; and CD-Roms. What they don't have are the technical problems that usually beset IT in schools.

The reason for this is that each school's network is managed via the wideband link from ICL's headquarters in Wakefield. The company assumes total responsiblity for hardware and software.

There would be something wrong if nothing ever went wrong, but when it does, the schools can phone the boffins at Wakefield. If it's a software problem, they can usually put it right remotely - by simply logging on to the network; if they fail, ICL's engineers are on permanent stand-by.

Alan Teece, the ICL manager in charge of the education market, is convinced that every school in the UK will eventually adopt this approach of delegating the business of managing their entire IT systems totally to the experts. He hopes that the BEON trial will demonstrate that ICL can deliver a complete, trouble-free, managed service.

Of course, teachers will still need to learn how to use the software. At Withywood, the education department of Exeter University, together with ICL's whizz-kids, provide continuing training, not only on how to run the equipment but also on how it can be used to deliver key areas of the curriculum.

An independent team based at Leicester University is monitoring every aspect of the project. A mountain of data and interim conclusions will be published in May. Since these findings will be totally independent, they should carry a lot of clout.

BT and ICL have a lot at stake - far more than their Pounds 2 million. If Leicester gives the project the thumbs-up, it can only be good for business; if the IT isn't seen to be working, and working well, BT and ICL are left with egg on their corporate faces.

What makes it particularly interesting is that these commercial giants have no control over their own project. Ultimately, the scheme is in the hands of the teachers. The seven I spoke to at Hareclive primary, Headley Park primary and Withywood community schools were deeply impressed, awed almost by the seismic impact the technology was having on children's work and behaviour. They conveyed a genuine sense that they were involved in an educational revolution; experienced teachers told me that the scheme was the most profound educational development they had witnessed in their careers. This, of course, is exactly what BT and ICL want me to write, and so I'm reluctant to do so. But that's what the teachers said.

They point to higher standards, better attendance, greater motivation and improved levels of concentration. It's the sort of talk you'd expect from IT evangelists who have gone to enormous lengths to equip their schools with the latest kit. But the teachers involved in the scheme don't fit that description. They never asked to host the project, and have nothing to gain by being other than dead straight.

Brian Hall, headteacher at Headley Park, is a case in point. Two years ago he appeared on BBC television to explain why there was no place for IT in schools. Today, he is a forceful advocate for computer-based learning. This won't surprise Brian Eales, headmaster at Withywood Community School. "It's the most sceptical teachers," he says, "who end up being the most enthusiastic." He recognises, too, something fundamental to the success of the scheme: the readiness of teachers to put the time and effort into facilitating change has proved to be as crucial as having the equipment with which to bring it about.

To say that children find IT easy is a truism that always crops up in this kind of article but one which I can't avoid repeating. I visited a few classrooms and found children who were word-processing, manipulating spreadsheets, using desktop publishing to compile a school newspaper, downloading music files from the Internet, e-mailing, and contributing the next chapter to a multimedia novel they are publishing on the Web. In all the schools the children spend some time every week using SIR software for individualised work in English, maths and, in the secondary school, French. And the video-conferencing equipment enables pupils to come into contact with an enviable range of "visitors", including around-the-world yachtsmen, an abstract artist and The TES's own Ted Wragg.

To single out any of these activities would be to suggest that it is somehow unusual or special. What's remarkable about BEON is that work of this nature is rapidly becoming commonplace. It's fascinating to see how naturally pupils adapt to the hi-tech environment. The schools I visited were well run, but the pupils, by being given access to the whole range of hi-tech tools, were sharing the responsibility for their own education. You only had to see them at work to be convinced that children everywhere should be entitled to the same opportunities.

Needless to say, if other schools are to emulate those in Withywood, it will cost a lot of money - anything from Pounds 10 to Pounds 100 per pupil per year. Is it worth it? Leicester University will tell us in May. When the trial comes to an end and BT and ICL stop footing the bills, the 11 schools involved intend to find the money to ensure that the scheme continues.

With that kind of unequivocal endorsement to report, superlatives become unnecessary.

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