If education is a political football, then the issue of information technology in education is fast becoming the field in which it is kicked around. For all sorts of reasons, different political parties wish to make the current position appear good or bad, regardless of the underlying reality, and they present their particular schemes for the future as the salvation of education itself.
In many ways the issue of IT in education brings out some fundamental contradictions and contrasts. You could argue that Scotland is the most advanced centre of IT use in schools in the world. Or you could argue that Scottish schools have a poor track record, way down the international league. Both viewpoints have some justification, but neither is wholly true.
There are a few underlying factors which limit the successful implementation of IT in the classroom. The most critical is the presence or absence of a school-wide policy. Without it, provision is likely to be fragmented and unevenly applied. With it, coherence and relevance within the learning and teaching policy of the school are much more likely.
A coherent policy is also an indicator of leadership from the top and a strategic focus on the needs of the whole school, not simply bits of it. This will maximise the impact for pupils and teachers alike.
All of this needs to be set within a three to five-year timeframe: improvements in IT provision do not happen overnight. This is only partly to do with the cost of hardware and software; the human dimension is equally important. Skills have to be developed and confidence nurtured.
So what is the ideal picture? Schools will be fully networked with curriculum and management information systems linked. There will be a permanent connection on to the Internet with information being pumped around the school and used throughout the day. Each department will have its own IT strategy and chosen software packages with the vast majority of staff trained in their use and confident and competent in the classroom setting.
The ideal school will have an intelligent IT policy with built-in replacement for hardware and strategic software upgrading. Many teachers are computer owners and often bring in worksheets or resources on disc or e-mail them into school. They will be encouraged and supported to do this.
Schools will have responded to the information revolution by having a substantial server. This big networked computer will cater for everyone's needs. Each department will have its own folder of specific materials and information which is shared. No one will need to hog resources or hide them away in a closed filing cabinet.
The school will use its Internet connection to publish and communicate and not just download information and resources. Each class will have a link with a class somewhere else in the world and joint projects and e-mail correspondence will occur regularly.
A substantial part of the school's Internet site will be taken up with displaying pupils' work. They will be encouraged to tell the world about their school. Many parents will use their home computer to log on to the school server and browse through work or even ask questions and comment on various aspects of it. An excited child may rush home to log on to show a particular piece of work which has been chosen for Internet display.
The ultimate aim is to develop basic skills in teachers so that they can feel comfortable using IT and in pupils so that they can move out into the world unfazed by the technological explosion happening all around them. Compared to this, debates on the kind of processor in your computer or whether PC is better than Macintosh are quite sterile.
This commitment continues to the point where only the US and Canada are more committed in educational terms to Apple. The reward for this loyalty is the first investment by Apple outside the US with the prestigious Classroom of Tomorrow research project (ACOT) which went to St Andrew's High School in Fife (see page 5). The benefits of that intensely supported IT learning environment will flow to other Scottish schools in due course.
It is also true to say that there will be pockets of stunning innovation and deserts of inactivity for the foreseeable future. Not every teacher is skilled or happy to use IT, but numbers of teachers confidently using computers in the classroom will continue to rise steadily, although they are unlikely to rise much beyond 75 per cent.
In a primary school context that could mean that an unlucky pupil could spend half of his or her time in school with virtually zero access to computers. This will create incredible imbalances in secondary schools, which they will have to manage as best they can. Couple that with a steady rise of home ownership of computers to around 45-48 per cent before levelling off, and there is a recipe for social inequality: a minority of young people unsupported in either the home or school. They will be at a considerable disadvantage.
Computers are tools which help teachers achieve their goals and help them encourage learning. Even one computer in a class can help the teacher differentiate the curriculum and manage groups at different stages of learning.
* Conference: Nigel Paine will talk about Plugging into the learning grid, Wednesday 9.30am, and interview Microsoft chief Bill Gates on the future of IT, in a video to be broadcast to delegates on Wednesday evening