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Pushing the envelope

Introducing what works for them will help schools define and design an ICT entitlement which will excite and stretch pupils' skills and learning, making them more independent learners and users, writes Ken Dyson

During my time as a schools inspector (HMI), I spoke to thousands of pupils about their use of ICT and learnt much from them all. But the one that stands out most was a Year 5 pupil who had spent time in school learning to use an animation package aimed at adults. What was remarkable was not that he had, with careful teacher guidance, taught himself and was more expert than his teacher on this package, but the by-products. In pursuing his own goals, he'd acquired confidence, tenacity and an ownership of the learning that were quite remarkable.

The 15 minutes he spent telling me of his achievements could have lasted an hour or more. He was not one of the school's high-flyers, but the attitudes and self-knowledge that the activity had engendered spilled over into the rest of his learning. It is no coincidence that such enlightened approaches to the use of ICT had helped the school to achieve impressive Sats results and value-added scores.

The student voice is important given the sharp increase in recent years of pupils' informal learning with ICT, often outside school. The growth in children's use of sophisticated gaming, blogs, wikis, chatrooms and a variety of electronic communications all point to a generation of children who have come to expect the technology to help them become creators, providers and collaborators, rather than passive recipients of information.

We need, therefore, to harness this expectation in schools and recognise that children's learning is now less constrained by time and place. We need to tap into the power of these activities to motivate children to learn and, in particular, to help them become more independent learners. We need professionals who know when not to use ICT as well as when to use it.

The May 2004 HMI evaluation of the impact of government spending on ICT noted that only a handful of schools had made any real links between their use of ICT and school improvement. Since that time, the importance of self-evaluation in the Ofsted inspection process has increased profoundly.

This provides an opportunity for more schools to link ICT to school improvement, by analysing its current impact on learning and teaching and then considering how they can move forward in this respect.

Becta's Self-Review Framework (SRF) seeks to help schools do just this: to locate their current position on their ICT journey and then decide the best way forward for them as an institution. Becta's online tools will enable schools to consider possible actions in order to take the next steps. The value of self-evaluation will be in helping to identify more clearly current strengths and areas for development.

This is a very timely source of such support. The SRF's focus on ICT in relation to whole-school improvement seeks to ensure a greater consistency of experience for pupils. Although most schools can, in varying degrees, highlight examples of exciting use of ICT, the overall picture, confirmed by Ofsted inspection evidence, shows that the productive use of ICT across subjects in most schools is still patchy, often teacher-dependent or, in secondary schools, subject-dependent. What we need to do is to move ICT forward so that it has a more widespread impact on the way pupils learn.

The framework's associated guidance suggests the range of evidence that schools might use as well as the processes to obtain this evidence. The best self-evaluation practice takes account of as many staff views as possible to reach a more accurate whole-school picture. The other good advice is to take heed of the learners' views.

Good inspection has always tried to see the school through the eyes of the pupils and this self-evaluation is no different. Finding out what pupils actually receive in terms of ICT is a fascinating process. And it rarely matches the picture suggested by what schools provide. Good schools will act on the insights their children offer in this way and address the gap between what they provide and what the pupils receive.

The question as to whether ICT improves attainment continues to be the right one to ask. In the context of specific bits of learning, such as developing understanding, skills and knowledge, this link is not always clear. There remains a need for an ongoing professional debate about the most effective uses of ICT and this should tap into teachers' professional instincts. The "impact" element of the SRF encourages schools to make professional judgments about how ICT has affected pupil outcomes. This extends beyond learning outcomes to attitudes, behaviour and even attendance. Where schools have established the link between ICT and improved attainment, this has been more to do with a broader approach to the engagement of pupils in learning - in the classroom or elsewhere.

Expensive as it is, ICT on its own is unlikely to lead to systemic change.

When it underpins an approach that seeks to build on developing a wider understanding of what makes effective learning and teaching, and when it builds on the creative power of ICT to which many of today's children are drawn, then schools start to reap the benefit. That means that we have to find ways of not simply computerising those things we have done in schools for centuries, such as finding information, and presenting text and graphics - exciting as ICT may make these activities. We need to ensure that these things happen in a context that enables children to think analytically, develop creative ideas, become tenacious in solving problems and work in constructive collaboration with others, all skills that children will need to survive in the 21st century.

A key element of the framework is leadership and management. Inspection and research have shown that schools are less likely to move forward in their use of ICT without the active involvement of the senior management, specifically the headteacher. The National College for School Leadership (NCSL) and Becta's Strategic Leadership in ICT (SLICT) courses for heads and change teams have provided many school leaders with the opportunity to stand back and consider their school's strategic approach to ICT.

The roll-out of the Building Schools for the Future (BSF) programme will also make demands on local authorities and schools in developing a vision for education that takes account of 21st century learning tools. The SLICT programme is being adapted to take account of the needs of staff in schools on the BSF programmes. Schools that wish to opt for the new ICT Mark (see page 20) will need to show that their evidence locates them in the higher levels of the framework.

To match the SRF's institutional focus (see page 18), Becta's ICT Excellence Awards are moving this year from individual to institutional excellence (see page 21). This is a welcome move but should not mask the continuing importance of individual excellence within schools. Keen and inspired teachers making creative and imaginative use of ICT are a highly significant resource for schools who want to spread this good practice and help colleagues to develop their own confidence to use ICT well.

Many schools can point to those spine-tingling uses of ICT. For example, where pupils extend understanding through interaction with animated graphics, or create and edit their own animations and videos, or analyse and improve their performance in dance, drama and PE using video. These are important in enthusing teachers and pupils alike but are unlikely to be the norm; many more perfectly valid uses of ICT extend or enhance learning in less spectacular ways.

Schools will not find using the SRF a short-term task. Like all worthwhile developments it will take time to undertake properly and will need to be looked at afresh periodically. But most will benefit from the process if they use it to underpin developments on a broader front. We know that, by and large, children enjoy using ICT and are motivated by it.

The real challenge for schools over the coming years lies in making this work for more tangible improvements in outcomes and in fostering a generation of confident, creative, analytical and independent learners.

Ken Dyson is an education consultant and was formerly HMI specialist adviser for ICT

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