The Office for Standards in Education (Ofsted) today published a report examining the impact of Government initiatives on Information and Communication Technology (ICT) provision and teaching in schools.
There is much to celebrate in the report with ICT resources now at record levels in schools. Pupils' ICT capability has risen steadily, as has the quality of teaching. The vast majority of teachers have developed their own expertise in ICT and now use technology for professional purposes such as planning, record-keeping and preparing learning materials. Many are also growing in confidence in their use of the technology with pupils to enhance the way they learn.
The increased focus on ICT by central government over the past five years has been key to these improvements. Most schools have benefited from the various schemes initiated by the Department for Education and Skills (DfES) to finance and support this growth. ICT in schools has continued to develop on two fronts. The work done by the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority (QCA) and the Primary and Key Stage 3 National Strategies in developing schools' ICT capabilities has taken ICT forward as a distinct area of learning within the national Curriculum. Secondly, there has been growing support, through a range of initiatives, for ICT to enhance teaching and learning across all subjects. The aim is for ICT to become embedded across the curriculum.
However, some see these twin objectives as opposing forces. Ofsted's evidence suggests the reverse to be true: when pupils develop the confidence to use ICT appropriately they not only extend their technology capabilities but they also enliven their learning in other areas of the curriculum.
Running alongside this has been the development of ICT-based learning materials, which rely on technology as a medium for pupils to learn interactively. These often demand only minimal ICT capability on behalf of the learner but offer distinctive opportunities for pupils. These materials let pupils work at their own pace, get computer-generated feedback and follow learning routes personalised to their needs. The private and autonomous nature of these activities is important, but the best teaching makes sure that pupils experience them as part of a mixed package of learning activities, including the ever-important direct interaction with other human beings.
However, the report points to a worrying feature within this overall progress: the widening gap between the best and worse provision across the country. The quality of ICT provision can vary not only between different schools, but also between subject departments and individual teachers within the same school.
However schools that make ICT work have certain characteristics in common.
The headteacher and senior managers drive developments, guided by a clear understanding of what they want the technology to do for their pupils.
Resource deployment and professional development are geared to this overall vision and to staff needs.
The use of technology for its own sake and without any clear educational purpose is still too much in evidence in schools. Teachers need to make sure that the use of ICT enhances the quality of teaching and learning and, where it does not, use more traditional teaching methods instead.
Critically, when staff share ideas, resources and experiences this can provide a springboard for highly successful development.
The use of ICT as a regular and accepted part of teaching and learning is still a reality for only a minority of pupils. To reach a state where this is the norm demands a significant cultural shift that sets a challenge for everyone in education. This challenge includes making the most of access to the vast amounts of information on the internet. Too often we see pupils blindly copying and pasting information. The web also increases the scope for learners to communicate informally with one another, with teachers and with experts in specific areas of learning around the world. Equally, access to technology outside school hours means that many pupils can continue activities outside lessons.
ICT is perhaps at its most powerful in the creative field. It can help pupils to more easily and more extensively re-evaluate, refine and develop a piece of work as diverse as a music composition, a piece of art or writing.
It is perhaps not surprising that it is taking time for the education profession to fully embrace technology, when its potential benefits haven't yet been completely understood. But, if our latest report tells us anything, it is that ICT can make a unique contribution to improving education. The challenge is to make it a normal and valuable part of learning for all of our pupils.