Brian Toner has some ideas for solving the perennial problems with computers
IT IS that time of year again, when teachers wait expectantly to discover how well they have met this year's target. Soon schools will gain a clear idea of their progress in information technology as they count the Asda and Tesco computer tokens donated by generous parents and friends. A quiet sense of satisfaction will descend on those who have qualified for another "free" computer.
Those whose optimism has been misplaced will try to do deals with schools where the response has been more encouraging - or urge pupils to search their bags for any forgotten tokens.
Supermarket schemes have become an important source of hardware for primary schools struggling to update their equipment. Such efforts suggest that the Government's aim of linking every school to the Internet by the year 2000 may be a bit ambitious.
We are assured that access to the "information superhighway" will benefit all our learning. But the lesson of history is that things may not be quite so easy. There has been no planned initiative to train all classroom teachers in computer use. Moreover, those who have attained a level of competence are placed at a disadvantage by the confusing mix of incompatible machines in our schools: Apples, Acorns and IBM clones.
If the evidence was not before our eyes, we would not believe that money has been so tight. But every time we see the large numbers of original BBC computers still in our classrooms we are reminded of early promises that failed to materialise.
The great hope was one computer in each primary classroom But once that was achieved, it was obvious that one computer for 33 children is poor provision.
Usually only one child can use a computer effectively at any one time. Working in pairs may seem like a way of developing cooperation. But a closer look will show that one child is dominant, either because there has been a poor match in the chosen pair or because many activities are best suited to a lone operator.
Those who consider books important must wonder if the money spent on allowing one child computer access to Encarta might be better spent on a class set of the Oxford Children's Encyclopaedia, whose volumes can be consulted by a number of children at once.
There is an assumption that all modern children are computer literate because they all have computers in their bedrooms and spend all their spare time playing on them. This is not true.
Many children do not have home computers and their parents can not afford them. Many teachers do not have home computers either. At a cost of around pound;1,000, many households must give priority to more important items like a washing machine, a cooker or a summer holiday.
Yet before most children can make progress in information technology, their teachers must acquire confidence and expertise in operating a computer. This familiarity takes time.
It would be encouraging to think that all class teachers will be given the chance of good training on up-to-date equipment. But after 15 years the position of information technology is very similar to that in which primary science now finds itself.
Large sums of money have been invested in science during the past 30 years, through a variety of development projects from "Nuffield Science" through Science 5-14, Learning Through Science and the Primary Science Development Project. Many excellent materials were produced and can be found in the cupboards of all primary schools today, but primary teachers are still very unsure of the subject.
They feel they do not have sufficient scientific knowledge and do not know how to organise this practical subject effectively in classes of 33 children.
Training has not addressed these very valid concerns. Instead it has left vague and unsatisfactory messages that knowledge and understanding are not important because "it is the process which counts". Thirty years of primary science have not produced scientifically confident teachers and children.
Yet all is not discouraging. If primary science has failed to gain a secure footing in the classroom, there is a success story which has taken much less time.
Until six years ago Scottish children began a foreign language at secondary school. Now everyone starts during their primary years.
This has been achieved through a planned commitment by the Scottish Office and education authorities to provide structured training for selected teachers. Each school should now have a core of good practice and expertise among teachers able to help pupils make an early start in learning a foreign language.
There are problems keeping up with the demand for training and ensuring consistency and continuity between primary and secondary school. But there could not be a better example of how to take a subject from nowhere in six years in all primary schools.
Training in information technology would take less time than the 27 days given to each teacher in modern languages.
The important thing would be to take teachers out of school with a supply teacher covering their classes, provide them with a planned progression in gaining computer skills and give them time to become secure on a one-to-one machine.
Achieving that would lift the quality of classroom teaching and information technology learning offered to children and provide it with a status beyond that of an activity that has to be financed by PTA fund-raising and supermarket tokens.
If we cannot achieve proper training for all class teachers, the money spent on hooking schools up to the Internet will be another wasted opportunity.
Brian Toner is headteacher of St John's Primary, Perth. The opinions expressed are personal.