A computer revolution? Or pound;3bn spent on gloss?
to those teachers who have grown fond of their laptops and interactive whiteboards, the question might seem heresy. But it is a question that needs to be asked, given that a staggering pound;3 billion has been spent on computers in UK state schools over the past eight years.
Is the vast amount of money being spent on technology really improving learning?
The Department for Education and Skills certainly appears to be convinced.
It plans to increase spending this year, and will fork out a further pound;4bn or pound;5bn in secondary schools alone as part of the refurbishment part of Building Schools for the Future programme.
A spokesman for the department described spending on technology as "an amazing success story". "We are the envy of the world in terms of how we have embedded ICT in our school system," he said.
But education researchers have not been able to prove a direct link between the introduction of ICT and an improvement in standards. Studies also suggest that computers are far from "embedded" in the nation's schools.
Research by Becta, the schools technology agency, which was set up by the Government to oversee the use of computers in schools, indicates that eight out of 10 are not reaping the benefits of technology.
"Sporadic" and "disappointing" was how a recent Bristol university study described schools' use of ICT. The report, Interactive Education, says that few teachers make full use of computers in the classroom. Many fear technology will interfere with learning, particularly in the humanities and creative subjects, so they use computers only for administration and routine tasks.
The amount of money spent is impressive, and the UK's computer-to-pupil ratios are amongst the best in the world. But Tom McMullan, a consultant who was director of procurement for C2K, Northern Ireland's version of Curriculum 2000, says that computers are normally used in the UK simply to bolster what schools are already doing.
"ICT has remained at best a coat of paint applied to existing curricular practice," he says.
It is a view shared by Dr Michelle Selinger, who spent many years in the classroom and now works for computer networking giant Cisco, advising on educational technology worldwide.
"There are lots of machines around in schools, but they are not embedded,"
she said. "They are not well used because, fundamentally, the whole structure of schools has not changed."
There have been attempts to prepare staff for change. The New Opportunities Fund scheme, which ran until 2003, aimed to train teachers how to use computers in their subject.
The derision with which the pound;230m scheme is now treated may be unfair given the scale of the challenge: some of the teachers could barely switch on a computer before taking the courses.
The trainers spent a large portion of their budgets delivering basic instruction in programs such as Microsoft Word and Excel, which bolstered teachers' personal computing skills but did not necessarily help them to bring a wider knowledge of computers into the classroom.
The realisation that embedding was not taking place led the DfES to put the process back on the agenda in 2003. It spent pound;8m commissioning software for a programme called Enhancing Subject Teaching Through the Use of ICT.
Unfortunately, this initiative has been largely ignored by schools. This is because it clashes with a host of other computer-related government initiatives, including the drives for personalised learning and discrete IT, national strategies and the emphasis on putting lesson materials on "virtual learning platforms".
Teachers' responses to this deluge of new technology range from simple bemusement and apathy to outright anger.
Sean O'Sullivan, deputy headteacher of the Frank Wise school in Banbury, Oxfordshire, says that schools alone do not deserve to be blamed for misspending the pound;3bn.
"Does it include farcical errors such as NOF training, Curriculum Online (an online catalogue of digital learning resources), deals tying schools into expensive licensing arrangements, and projects such as BBC Jam?" he said. "I suspect it includes virtually all of these and many more. So, rather than allowing schools to shoulder the guilt for not spending the money effectively, we should be haranguing the Government."
Jane Cooke of Saltash community school in Cornwall, who won an ICT in Practice award last year, also has strong views on what has gone wrong.
"There is still a resistance among subject teachers to ICT," she said. "The potential for change is enormous, but most teachers do not know what it is, so ICT gets used in trivial ways. Does a PowerPoint presentation teach a lesson? Of course not, but many teachers are using them.
"There are huge benefits to the use of ICT in education, but there are also times when ICT gets in the way."
Ofsted, the education watchdog, reported last year that there were "wide variations in the quality of pupils' ICT experience" in primary schools.
"Despite pupils' very good attitudes, behaviour and levels of engagement in ICT lessons, high achievement was found only in a minority of schools and higher-attaining pupils in particular were underachieving ," it said.
Similar problems were noted in secondary schools. "None of the schools surveyed embedded ICT to the extent that it was an everyday aspect of pupils' learning," it said.
Dr Selinger, of Cisco, says that pupils are put off ICT lessons by constraints that made the technology dull and unconnected to what they used outside school.
"When we did a survey, the students told us they did not do any internet searching at school because everything was blocked," she says.
But there are those who remain optimistic. Steve Moss, who is responsible for the ICT arm of the Building Schools for the Future programme, says he is confident that the pound;4 billion going into secondary schools will be well-used. "It is much too big a capital sum to be wasted," he says.
Becta will also be crucial. The agency has set a target to increase the proportion of schools using technology effectively from the current 15 per cent to at least 80 per cent by 2011.
Tony Richardson, who moved recently from the National College for School Leadership to become Becta's executive director for e-strategy, admits that there is a "large rump of the ambivalent and later adopters" among schools.
"We can't wait for osmosis to work with them, so there has to be a harder drive to engage hearts and minds," he says. "The reason I am optimistic is that everything is in place.
"During the past five years, the technology has become much more stable and there is much more of it," he said.
"The learners who are coming into schools will demand more technology. This is the moment."
MORE SCREENS IN A SCHOOL NEAR YOU
More than 50% of secondary and 43% of primary teachers say that lack of access to classroom computers hinders their use of technology.
Only 9% of secondary ICT co-ordinators say teachers can get their class into computer labs when they want; in primary, the figure is 28%.
The total ICT budget for state schools in the UK rose by pound;50m the past school year to pound;552m. This year it is expected to increase to Pounds 587m.
Primary school computer use increased by more than 6% between 2005 and 2006, to an average of 31.1 computers per school.
Secondary technology declined by 2% in 2005 as numbers of redundant machines were higher than new purchases. In 2006, more than 900,000 computers were available to secondary schools - an increase of 8,000.
The average number of computers ineffective in a school, because of age or specifications, is 8.6 for a typical primary and 42 for a typical secondary.
Source: British Educational Suppliers Association research