A mind on the revolution

3rd January 1997 at 00:00
Henry IV promised his French subjects a chicken in every Sunday pot. David Blunkett, Labour's Secretary of State for Education in waiting, isn't much exercised about chickens. It's computers he's into, and he'd like to see one in every teacher's home.

"If computers are available to children, they have to be available to teachers, too," he asserts. Like old Henry and his poulets, he isn't too specific about how these objects of desire will reach their destination at this point. But his thinking is along the lines of a national scheme in which teachers would get a sizeable discount on the cost of the machines. What it requires is "a government that is very proactive and hands on".

Blunkett's vision of a New Labour government appears to be hands-on when it comes to information technology, schools and the teaching profession. Notwithstanding that he's a self-confessed "Neanderthal when it comes to using IT", he's unabashedly evangelical about its educational uses.

"IT has to be an integral part of the learning process rather than a separate system," he says. To get it to that stage, he knows that his first challenge is getting teachers, if not actually to love the computer,then at least to feel comfortable with it.

Perhaps challenge is too soft a word for the task ahead. A recent survey by the Department for Education and Employment revealed that roughly two-thirds of teachers are still not using IT in the curriculum. How do you turn this groundswell of disinterest, techno-fear or lack of skills around? Not without, in his words, "a big headache". "We're looking at ways of funding resources to tackle in-service training. Teacher training in IT is crucial. But in-service training must touch the half a million teachers there already."

David Blunkett isn't content with just any old technical skills. He wants teachers who will be able to use the technology to enhance children's learning in new, exciting ways. "Some schools have good technology in place but it's evident they're not using it in creative ways. They use it to produce multiple-choice worksheets and things like that." Paper and pen would be a lot cheaper and easier to store.

It is heartening to hear his criticism of the utter nerdishness that passes for cyber-wisdom coming out of the most hallowed - that is, moneyed - mouth in the Western world. He found "extraordinary" a comment that Bill Gates of Microsoft related to an assembled audience when he was in London last month. "He was talking about the wonders of e-mail and went on about how it makes it easier to communicate with your children at university. Now I'm keen for people to use this technology effectively, but not for it to bypass normal human communication. What's wrong with talking?"

By teachers using IT effectively, he has in mind the ability of teachers to open their minds to change, motivated by their understanding of how the tech-nology can improve their teaching.

"The change has to be seen by teachers to be beneficial to their teaching.We have to show them how to bring alive what they're doing in the classroom. It can change the nature of project work, everything. But we have to do this in a way that doesn't frighten people, so that they can learn for themselves."

Labour's proposed National Grid for Learning will be an important vehicle in addressing teachers' and pupils' relationship with IT. Equipping schools for the technological revolution that Labour's education policy is concentrated on is another mammoth undertaking. "We have to find a way of ensuring that there's the right equipment," says Mr Blunkett.

His party colleague, Anne Campbell, the MP for Cambridge, caused ripples when she suggested that industry could pass their unwanted and outdated hardware on to schools. She stands by that suggestion. "Fifty per cent of computers in schools are more than six years old. Links between schools and businesses have already successfully been set up."

A forthcoming report from Labour's IT working party, chaired by Dennis Stevenson, will be raising further ideas on how to equip schools. Mr Blunkett is open-minded on the possibilities: "It doesn't have to be all or nothing. It's about how we can lever in resources from elsewhere."

If the Government has dragged its heels over the Internet over the last five years, Labour is positively chomping at the bit. "We're keen to open up a new educational vista via the Internet. It will be like a library of people's dreams. Imagine all schools, no matter how remote, having the same access to the Tate and the National Gallery as schools in central London have," he says.

For teachers, there's more. "We intend to establish a post-qualification teachers' centre on the Internet so all teachers can tap into the learning process for as long as they wish. Through this centre, they will be able to gain post-qualification certificates and become advanced skills teachers."

Another boon of the Internet is, in Anne Campbell's words, the opening up of "cross-fertilisation between one school and another, something which doesn't happen much at the moment. The Internet could be a bulletin board, through which teachers share ideas."

As Tony Blair and David Blunkett might well say: New Labour. New Technology. New Ideas. New Dreams. New deal for schools. But in the pounds and pence world of realpolitik, schools can be forgiven for asking, perhaps less sound-bitingly about how it's going to be paid for. And what does Gordon Brown, the shadow Chancellor, say about all this?

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