The National Council for Educational Technology (NCET) has had the most difficult year in its short life. The Coventry-based organisation - frequently under fire because of the conflicting demands of government, the information technology industry and the educational constituency - has been bruised.
Things came to a head when the last chief executive, Margaret Bell, who for some time had been at odds with the Department for Education and Employment, the paymasters of its Pounds 5 million annual grant, resigned suddenly last January. The appointment of a new chief executive was also traumatic. After a long selection process, no candidate was appointed. The council was leaderless at a crucial moment, with a new government wishing to place great emphasis on information and communication technology (ICT).
The recent appointment of Owen Lynch as acting chief executive is an interesting response to the situation. Lynch, a 48-year-old primary headteacher, is the longest serving member of the NCET's council. His 6-month secondment from Cumbria covers the autumn term, up until the annual BETT educational technology show, traditionally a launching point for new national initiatives.
So what is he like? He is Irish and the years in Cumbria have not diluted his accent. His sense of humour runs through his dealings with people, and his passion for learning lights up his conversation. Working at Coventry but still having a home in the Lake District, he has a round trip of 500 miles each weekend to get back to his partner, his school, the hills and the sea that are such important parts of his life. They are all important factors he would have to consider if his new role were extended.
Lynch's work at Orgill School in Cumbria has gained much attention. The school, on an estate in the town of Egremont, is an example of what can be achieved by an energetic head with a dedicated group of teachers. Although the ratio of computers to pupils is probably the highest in the country, Lynch is anxious to point out that the staff are more interested in the quality of learning - a computer is just one of the tools they use.
Lynch, together with Dr Mike Postle, set up the Cumbria CREDITS (Community Regeneration Through the Development of IT Skills project, which has just entered its second year. The aim is to equip primary schools so that they can take on the education of the community in their immediate locality. They would then become community development centres where the multimedia computers can be used by the schools by day and by parents and others in the evening.
The first-year pilot had four schools. The second year will extend into another 28 schools. The third and fourth years will complete the network of community centres across the county. Unlike other schemes, the ownership is firmly vested in the individual school.
How does he respond to the sniping that he is a primary head with a background and experience that hasn't prepared him for running such a large organisation (although there are former teachers occupying far loftier positions)?
"I can understand that view. I don't come to the organisation with significant national status. However, I do have the attributes of leadership, a passionate commitment to ICT, and diplomacy and energy that the present situation requires. I have had success as a headteacher working within my authority and with running major projects like CREDITS."
Lynch feels that his priorities are to restore confidence, energise the organisation and position it in a way that will enable it to take full opportunity of the agenda being set by the Government.
Dennis Stevenson author of the report on ICT that the Labour party produced when it was in opposition, is reviewing the council in the light of government initiatives being planned. A government that talks about the University of Industry and the National Grid for Learning has to ensure that it has the infrastructure established to carry it. The complexities that have emerged so far about the National Grid for Learning, with its proposals to encourage franchises and partnerships with commercial firms, academic institutions, local authorities and other bodies, will need careful managing. Few of the commercial organisations have the expertise necessary to take on the learning side even if they can solve some of the technicalities. It is also important that the grid does not become a top-down structure so that the small software houses, local interests and, above all, teachers are ignored.
Impatient with some of the criticism that has been directed at the NCET, Lynch is forthright. "I can't say that every single aspect of the organisation's work has been of the highest quality, but I would say that most of it has been exceptional and of tremendous value to the educational sector. There is occasionally a spiral of criticism and some people do like to complain and reinforce what they have just heard.
"I was presented the other day with an external report done by Benchmark, independent consultants, about levels of customer satisfaction that totally goes against such criticism. It provides clear evidence of the way that we respond to customers on the Web, visits, conferences, staff, publications. The level of customer satisfaction is extraordinary, higher than any other organisation the consultants had worked with over the past two or three years. There is a summary of Benchmark's conclusions on our Web site."
Hasn't the council over the last few years developed a very narrow view of ICT? Shouldn't we be thinking in wider terms, about more than computers? "It is a fair observation and to be honest I don't understand why. I talked to the senior management team here and asked why we should be driving the whole thing through computers. Many of the documents that are coming out on the National Grid for Learning and the University for Industry have a clear steer about the potential of film and television. I think that we have to start considering the potential of other technologies. It will be on our agenda in the coming months."
"I have been here just a short time and I have to say that I have been delighted with the commitment and motivation I have found. There are tremendous assets in this organisation of knowledge and wisdom. It has a great ability to help in the building of new educational structures. There is no other organisation in this country at the moment that has a clearer view of classroom practice, institutional practice and the way that they impact on children's learning. It can offer advice on software and services and describe the expectations we should have of quality of service."
Fully aware that he is preparing the organisation for change Lynch says that he would be surprised and disappointed if NCET did not change significantly over the coming months. "There is a changing agenda out there and we need to fit to that. I do insist, however, that we have some unique skills. We cannot take opportunities of the challenges without changing. It is impossible to be really clear at the moment because we need further indications from government about their strategy in this area before we can see precisely how the organisation will have to change."
Lynch's main interest, which he says is shown in the work that he has done in Cumbria, is exploring how an ICT structure within an organisation provides for educationists the capability to move from managing classrooms to managing learning, the ability to respond effectively to individual need. "It will also be about the changing relationship between us and the home. The technology will allow us to build significant new partnerships between home and school. Schools must become the centres of learning communities, focused not inwards but outwards."
We now have someone at the top of an organisation who not only knows more about the application of technology than most but can see the most of the problems. That is likely to be good for the NCET and for ICT in education.