How quickly things change. Only a few years ago as a forward looking secondary headteacher, I arranged to have a special telephone line put into our computer department so that we could connect one of the school's computers to the Internet.
Our excitement at being one of the first schools to wire up to the world wide web was, however, somewhat dampened by our fears that unless we kept a close eye on its use we would not be able to pay the telephone bill. The computer was kept locked away, with access to the Internet strictly regulated.
Today, thankfully, computers are not usually locked away or even confined to the computer department, but are to be found in almost every department and office in schools, with an intranet link to each.
Cheaper, faster connections to the Internet mean students can now study with virtually unlimited access to the web. Many schools have also embraced new technology to transform and increase the efficiency of their management systems.
Educational policy over the past six years has been to encourage greater use of computers in education. Schools have acquired more computers and peripherals and the hardware and software now available is of a much higher specification than used to be the case, motivating students to produce quality work.
Many pupils using computers every day, in school and at home, have acquired a high level of competence. Training has been provided for teachers so that they are much more confident and able to use computers more effectively in the classroom. There are also numerous websites offering lesson plans and ideas and enabling teachers to share good practice.
Computers are revolutionising the way that subjects are taught, while easy access to information and word-processing programs, music and design software packages and associated technologies such as digital photography and digital video are encouraging and enabling pupils to achieve a high standard of presentation.
Britain is recognised as one of the most advanced countries in Europe for the use of computer technology in education and certainly there is a great deal of good work being done in our schools. However, it is a mixed picture in terms of the pace and the extent of change, with some schools being much more advanced than others in taking advantage of all that information and communications technology can do.
Research in England by Becta, the Government's lead agency for ICT in education, has helped to identify some of the factors that influence the progress and quality of technological change in schools. Those which were most successful in using ICT provided high quality resources, had good ICT teaching and the teaching generally was of a high standard. They also had good leadership of ICT at middle management level as well as from the headteacher and senior management team.
The research shows that strong, strategic leadership is crucial. The best results are achieved where ICT is fully integrated into the school development plan. If the school leadership is not committed, then progress will be limited.
Becta, with the National College of School Leadership, is offering a programme of courses designed to support heads and to help them improve their leadership skills in this area. In Scotland similar courses are planned by the Scottish Executive and Learning and Teaching Scotland as part of the Masterclass initiative. It is anticipated that this investment in training heads will lead to significantly improved performance in more schools.
Computers have been out of the school cupboards for some years. Now we must ensure there is a coherent management approach to take full advantage of all the benefits and exciting possibilities that new technology can offer.
Richard Pietrasik was until recently director of schools at Becta and formerly executive director of Learning and Teaching Scotland. Now he works as an education consultantwww.becta.org.uk
In schools which most successfully take advantage of computer technology, the following points apply:
* staff and pupils are skilled and confident in using information and communications technology and their skills keep abreast of new developments
* management and teaching staff understand enough about the technology to make informed judgments as to when ICT can enhance learning and when it will not
* the equipment is well maintained, regularly reviewed and kept up to date
* the fact that most children have access to computers out of school is taken advantage of by teachers to enhance pupils' learning, but there are strategies to ensure that those who do not have a computer at home are not disadvantaged
* policies are in place to protect pupils and encourage safe and responsible Internet use
* staff take advantage of the technology available to better administer and manage the school and education within it
* the school serves its local community well by taking a leading role as a community learning and information hub