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Shaping skills for an on-line age

Anne Campbell asks if we are ready for a high-tech future. Ella will start secondary school in the year 2006. In her pocket she will carry her own personal computer. When she needs to do homework, or find out bus times or buy some jeans, she will turn to the PC as her first point for information.

When she wants to chat to her cousin Eliza, who will be starting secondary school the same year, she will use her PC. She will be able to see and listen to Eliza at the same time. If Eliza does not wish to be disturbed, Ella will be able to leave her a video of the message which Eliza can pick up at any time. To see a film, to hear the latest in rock music, to pay a visit to an art gallery or join in a discussion with a group of friends, the technology will be there.

How well will Ella survive in this strange, futuristic, world? Will she be able to cope with the mass of information that will be available to her at the push of a button? Will she acquire the new skills she needs to be able to work productively, or will she find herself rejected by employers because she does not have the necessary expertise?

She will need to be able to communicate and to express herself well both verbally and visually. Numeracy will be as important as ever, and she will need to understand scientific principles and be competent in using new technology. More importantly, she will have to become a self-learner, so that she can adapt and survive in a rapidly changing environment. Tony Blair has said that education is the best economic policy, and that must be right in the world which lies ahead.

But what are the chances of this dream becoming a reality in time for Ella to realise her potential? Will her education be appropriate for the needs of the next century? How will her teachers (most of them trained in this century) be able to cope with the new technological era?

At the present rate of progress, it does not look very promising. There is, on average, one computer for every 18 children in primary schools and one for every 10 children in secondary schools (Department for Education and Employment statistical bulletin). However, half the computers in primary and a third of the computers in secondary schools are more than six years old.

But computers themselves are not sufficient to bridge the technological gulf. Schools also need printers, servers, cables, Internet connections and, where available, superhighway links, software, service agreements, technical support and in-service training for teachers.

Four out of every five teachers have little or no training in information technology and the small amount that has been provided through Grants for Education Support and Training funding is under threat of extinction from this year. IT advisory services are disappearing as councils cut back their own spending. As the advisory centres are unable to sell their services outside their own areas, they are commercially unviable and dying. It is not surprising that only 40 per cent of primary teachers and 30 per cent of secondary teachers use IT regularly and that these percentages have not increased over the past two years.

Of course, there is much good practice and the statistics hide an enormous variation in provision. Orgill primary school in Cumbria has just won the National Training Award from the Confederation for British Industry, in competition with forward-looking companies such as Ford and Rover. They have l50 computers for 210 pupils.

In this school, parents are being trained in computer skills with their children, and manage 90 per cent attendance on curriculum development nights when mums and dads work with their children to produce a newspaper by computer.

Netherhall secondary school in Cambridge is the only school in the world developing its own multimedia education programmes for school and community use. It has won a National Multimedia Award for its "Walkabout" round Cambridge, touring shops where you can "enter and buy items". It has also developed materials for use with the Midland Bank, the Flour Advisory Bureau and the Imperial War Museum.

These schools and others like them demonstrate what can be achieved by imaginative teachers and heads. But the statistics disguise some of the schools at the other end of the scale, where computers have hardly penetrated at all. Indeed in some areas, computers would make little impact because the basic skills of numeracy and literacy are too low.

The Labour party's crusade to raise standards throughout all our schools is necessary and welcome. Raising the professional status of teachers and improving the training for headteachers is essential. Both Tony Blair and David Blunkett, the party's education spokesman, have made it clear that they understand very well the important role that IT can play in both motivating children and in providing schools and teachers with the tools which will stretch children's minds and allow them to adapt their teaching to the needs of the child. Finding information, sharing ideas, using new interactive software and encouraging children and teachers to publish their own work on the networks promises an exciting future.

A national strategy is required to ensure that schools are properly equipped and that teachers are adequately prepared for their changing roles. There are too many ad hoc pilot schemes at present and we need to know how these will work on a national scale. If the Government were to make clear the ways in which it is intending to equip children with the necessary skills, then computer manufacturers assured of a ready market, would be encouraged to reduce their prices. Teachers would be persuaded to write more of their own educational materials and share it with others.

The authors of the national curriculum should have a thorough reassessment of those skills which are necessary and those which are redundant in the new information age. Software is already available to summarise documents, to translate automatically from another language and to check both spelling and grammar. There is little point in children acquiring these skills at school, unless they intend to specialise in these areas. The direction which is needed to ensure that these changes take place is sadly lacking in the present administration.

Some of the cost of equipping schools could be off set by opening them as local community learning centres. A school open from 8am to 8pm and Saturday morning all year round would be available for pupil use for about 1,000 hours as at present, and another 2,000 hours for community use. In some areas, private companies have set up Link partnerships providing adult training in out-of-school hours, and have also given schools equipment and technical support to teach their pupils the necessary skills.

The DFEE needs to reorientate its thinking so that it concentrates its efforts into thinking about the skills our children will require in future. Indeed, renaming the DFEE as the Department for Ella and Eliza might ensure that both the Government and the Sir Humphreys of the administrative world focused their minds on the real priorities.

Anne Campbell is the Labour MP for Cambridge and a member of the Commons select committee on science and technology. Ella and Eliza are her grandchildren.

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