A catalyst within the system;Interview;Anita Straker;Watershed

16th April 1999 at 01:00
This month UK educationalsoftware pioneer Anita Straker tells Chris Johnston how becoming a maths inspector was the turning point in her career

A happier Anita Straker exclaims: "It's been a while since anyone asked me about that." This relief follows my explanation that I was here, at the Department for Education and Employment's canteen, to talk about her involvement with computers.

Such enthusiasm reflects the years she spent involved with information technology and education. Now director of the National Numeracy Strategy, she wrote numerous computer programs in the late Seventies and Eighties.

Many in the field remember her efforts well. Helen Kelly, an American teacher, once described Straker's Mathtalk as a "conceptually brilliant piece of software which I have used to inspire both senior steel company executives on $250,000 a year, and semi-literate ghetto children into mathematical discussions".

Becoming a mathematics inspector in Surrey in 1974 after working as a secondary and primary teacher was the first step into what was a very brave new world in the Seventies for Straker. Told she was responsible for computing and knowing "absolutely nothing about it", she enrolled in an Open University diploma in computers and computing. The course exposed her to some impressive computer awareness work which a Surrey University academic was doing with some secondary schools.

In 1978 Straker became Wiltshire's maths advisor and decided to spend the pound;5,000 available on computers for secondary schools. She went to Oxford to see Research Machines (now RM) - a visit well remembered by Mike O'Regan, one of the company's founders, as her purchase of 13 380Zs was their first big order. "Nobody had ever ordered 13 before," she recalls. "And they'd never had a woman take any interest in their computers before." After the computers were put into the schools, she says, "it became clear that maybe these machines had more application across the curriculum, rather than in straight computing courses".

Around the same time, the loan of a Commodore Pet by a fellow inspector sparked Straker's interest in programming. She enjoyed using it so much she bought one herself and the knowledge of programming gained led to thoughts of using computers in primary schools. At that time the only primary software available was American and "dreadful", so she started writing her own programs.

A car accident put her in hospital for several weeks in 1981, but she used the time to rewrite her Commodore programs for the then new BBC computer. "The hospital had to get special permission for me to plug in a computer because nobody had ever wanted to have one before."

Around this time, Straker says the notion that computers had a place in primary schools began to blossom and, through Micros and Primary Education (MAPE), she began to meet others who shared her vision. In 1983 this led to her appointment as director of the Department of Education's Microelectronics Education Programme: "It was a fabulous time in a sense because everybody was so enthusiastic. It was breaking new ground. I think it was a great shame that the Government of the day stopped the money (in 1986), as we'd only just scratched the surface."

MEP was followed by a stint as a district inspector for the Inner London Education Authority. Straker then joined Berkshire and became its principal inspector, and during this time published Children Using Computers. The book concentrated on the educational aspects of using IT in primary classrooms rather than the technology, which meant it remained relevant for many years.

A second edition was released in 1997, but 80 per cent of the original text was retained. The TES review of the book noted that that "if there is such a thing as a classic text in the curricular use of IT, this is it".

When Berkshire was threatened with abolition under local government reorganisation, she moved to Camden, north London to become deputy director of education. The National Numeracy Strategy role came in 1996 - a job she insists will be her last. Straker says the strategy has many similarities with the other national initiative she headed: "The same regional structure and the same notion that you train a couple of teachers from every school and get them interested in, in this case, mathematics as well as focusing on teacher training providers."

The strategy aims to get more whole-class teaching of maths in schools, which Straker believes should also be happening with ICT. "A more sensible use of those one or two computers per classroom is a different approach, where for example a quarter of the class sit around the screen and the teacher works with the children, maybe inviting them to press keys when appropriate, and certainly discussing with them what is happening. We need to get primary schools to think about organising their classes and teaching a group of children in that kind of way, not just sticking two computers in the corner.

"You've got to have hardware provision, software provision and teacher training happening in parallel. No one works without the others so you've somehow got to keep all of them in step, which is hard to do as it all costs money."

Ten years ago Anita Straker said she believed it would have been "self-indulgent" to take redundancy from the ILEA and become a consultant. "I'm sure I have done the right thing by staying within the system." It is certain that many would agree.

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