Imagine that a means had been discovered of improving the level of pupil motivation across the board. Imagine that it could be implemented across the country by spending no more per year than it costs to provide 100 new escalators on the London underground. And imagine that this change would be overwhelmingly popular with teachers. Question: Would you get it done?
I'm not saying that this question is facing the education service . . . yet. I am saying that the results of a recent study by the National Council for Educational Technology, Birmingham education authority and Keele University are tremendously exciting. Clearly the views of 3,000 pupils and 400 staff in 13 Birmingham secondary schools do not represent the nation, but they certainly ought to provoke some serious thinking about a national strategy for information technology in education.
The research has enabled us not only to identify the general level of motivation among pupils but also to demonstrate that their level of motivation when they use information technology rises significantly. More than 70 per cent of pupils find work involving computers interesting or very interesting. The averages mask important details. For example, information technology enhances boys motivation even more than girls. 63 per cent of boys and 47 per cent of girls agree that "I get so interested in work involving a computer that I don't want to stop".
Thus information technology may help to bring levels of general motivation among boys up to those of girls. Moreover the early evidence suggests that IT can reach the parts of the pupil population that schools have often failed to reach in the past. Two-thirds of those who say they find school "completely boring" describe work with IT as "interesting". Half of those who claim they "always behave badly at school" get so interested in work with computers that they don't want to stop. And, as Eric Forth has argued, IT has tremendous potential in special needs education because of its ability to tailor teaching to individual need.
Motivation, of course, is a precondition of learning but it does not guarantee it. The results, however, suggest that IT improves the quality of learning too. Well over half of the pupils in the samples say they "learn much more quickly" when they use computers while a similar number say they "understand things better". Not only that, computers encourage independent learning: more than 70 per cent say that computers "let us carry on learning when the teacher is not there".
Yet for most of their time in school pupils do not use information technology. In this sample 38 per cent say they use a computer once a month or less, while 8 per cent never use them at all. Meanwhile more than 40 per cent only ever use computers in IT lessons. Another 37 per cent use them in just a few subjects. As few as 9 per cent use them in most lessons.
The data from the teachers help to explain this uneven picture. The vast majority of teachers share the view that use of IT helps to motivate pupils. They would also like to use IT in half their lessons or more but the reality contrasts strongly with their aspirations. Almost 80 per cent of teachers seldom or never use information technology in their lessons. There may be a range of factors which explain this, but by far the most significant is that many teachers, and especially women teachers, simply don't believe they are competent to do so. Surely something should be done. It would be a mistake to see information technology as the solution to all our problems. Clearly it is not.
However, it would also be a mistake to miss a golden opportunity. Britain has led the way in the provision of hardware and in the support it has provided for IT. This is much to the credit of successive ministers, the National Council for Educational Technology and local authorities but the world is changing fast and a leader one day can be a laggard the next. In short we are where we are and it could be much worse. There is now a new task. The phase in which IT has been perceived as exciting and innovative but nevertheless an "extra" irrelevant to the real world of the classroom, needs to be drawn to a close. Information technology must become as integral to learning as papers and books.
We could allow this to happen by default, for happen it would over a decade or so. If we chose that option progress would be uneven and frustratingly slow. Or we could plan it in top-down style with the concomitant risk of making a monumental error. We might for example make everyone invest in canals only to discover that railways had just been invented. The alternative is to develop an implementation strategy which is neither planned nor haphazard but both. Perhaps this is what Baldrick meant by a cunning plan. It would involve deeper research into what precisely it is about information technology that motivates young people and helps them to learn. It would involve schools and universities working together to develop a new pedagogy which encompasses the use of information technology in all its diverse guises.
It would involve both central and local government, perhaps through the Grants for Education Support and Training scheme, investing significantly in teachers' competence and confidence in the use of the new technologies.
The Government should also put up some money to accelerate access to the latest technologies perhaps by encouraging schools to enter into leasing agreements with computer companies. Since this policy would greatly extend their market, companies should be pressured to offer serious discounts over the short and medium term.
Finally a date should be set some time in the future - say January 1, 1999 - when every school would be expected to meet agreed standards, published in advance, for the quality of provision and use of information technology. After that date it would be highlighted in inspection. All this could be achieved with the investment of no more than Pounds 100 million per annum - an addition of around 0.5 per cent to total expenditure on maintained education - which could be tapered out after four years. The new millennium might still seem a long way off. In fact it is already here. It is simply a matter of making it happen.