Technology in schools has grown up in a sporadic way. Gerald Haigh looks at the remedies outlined in a BT-sponsored report
How did we arrive at the position where the computers in the school office are not only entirely different from the ones in the classrooms, but are much more powerful? Whatever the history might be, that schools need to consider how to resolve this as a matter of priority is just one of the conclusions of Heading for the Superhighway, a BT-sponsored report which explores how information and communications technology is being managed and offers some ways forward.
Of the curriculum-admin gap, the authors, who visited up to 300 schools, say that "huge differences are noticeable between the quality of hardware and software available to support management and administration functions, and that used to support the curriculum".
The problem is that when computers were first introduced to schools, nobody envisaged that curriculum and office computers might have to be linked. Now, though, there is a vastly greater demand for classroom assessment data, and yet the software which can help - SIMS Assessment Manager, for instance - is usually on the office machines, out of the reach of classroom teachers. The BT document, therefore, recommends that before any school spends money on new hardware and software, "the feasibility of integrating administrationand curriculum systems (should) beconsidered".
This "stop and think" message is one of the document's central themes and is repeated in various ways. It recommends schools audit their staff's ICT skills, and that governing bodies appoint one of their number to take an interest in ICT. And its first recommendation is for schools to carry out a formal review of their use of technology, "to identify where ICT can support professional practice".
Pat McCarthy, head of Eaglesfield School in Greenwich, was seconded for a year to lead the team of four teachers that produced the document. He urges heads to move cautiously. "We were bounced into computers in the early Eighties," he says. "Pace yourself, take advice at every opportunity. Let's think what we're going to do for the benefit of the pupils. If we do that, I think we could get it right this time."
He is particularly anxious that schools take time to seek out the best deals on hardware. "Such is the speed of advance that you almost get a cost benefit by delaying your decision."
Pat McCarthy advises heads to approach computer buying in the same way as they would buy a car - "you don't rush into it, you look around".
The report says that secondary schools generally do well in the hardware market - "headteachers showed considerable understanding of economies of scale and the willingness of large companies to sell in bulk". They are less reliant than are primary schools on arrangements made by their local authorities, not all of which seem to deliver the best deal. "Some concern was expressed about costs and support."
Secondaries also end up with better levels of support and maintenance, and seem to be leading the drive towards the commercially compatible computer platforms which they assume to be necessary if there is going to be a common network for administration and curriculum.
The other key message is to do with vision. Says Pat McCarthy: "The key thing for heads and and teachers is this sense of vision about where you want to be."
What the document says to school management, then, is: have the vision; translate it into attainable objectives and targets; do the planning which will achieve them; and then look very carefully and unhurriedly at what hardware and software will best do the job within the budget.
There are other issues of course - training, funding, community use, monitoring. All are discussed in a way that brings together much accumulated experience and offers reasoned advice. It also highlights many gaps in the way ICT is handled in schools - that they are finding it difficult to monitor just how ICT is used. This covers two areas: the gap between the power of administration software and the reality of its use; and the dilemma about training - to what extent should it be generic or subject-based.
The authors also reflect the view of many schools that if every teacher could either be given a laptop, or helped to buy one, then ICT literacy in staffrooms would be given a major boost, quite aside from any formal training.
Getting five experienced and carefully chosen heads and teachers to visit hundreds of schools, before sitting them down to write a report, seems an excellent way of producing sensible and authoritative recommendations. If only some other educational initiatives had been approached in this way.
Case studies:the big picture
* Holme on Spalding Moor Primary. East Riding of Yorkshire Paul Rimmer is a trained PE teacher, and became ICT co-ordinator by a route familiar to many. "There was a co-ordinator here when I arrived three years ago, and I said: 'I've got a PC at home, I'll give you a hand.'" Eventually he took over the job, supported by colleagues and the authority. "There are courses to help me along and I became friendly with someone at County Hall. Since I've started here, I've learned an awful lot about computers."
Now he faces the task of changing the key stage 2 classes, using standalone Macs, to a PC network. He began by taking as much advice as he could - getting suppliers' quotes, talking to the authority. "The main thing for me was to get my head around what was required and the cost involved."
Gradually, he is building up a clear picture of the kind of network the school needs. Though some young teachers would move faster, his cautious approach is in line with the thinking in Heading for the Superhighway.
* Inverness Royal Academy. Highland Region.
Inverness Royal Academy is about to make big decisions about its ICT. Having gained funding from BT, with more to come from the local authority, the concern is to spend it wisely. Says assistant rector Ken MacIver: "Our aim is to focus on teaching and learning, and not get sidetracked into an over-concern with technology."
The school currently has a mixture of PC and Macintosh hardware - the Mac has a strong presence in Scottish schools - and, among other decisions, platform choices will have to be made. "It's a major challenge," says Mr MacIver.
The school's approach has been to set up an ICT working group of 12 people drawn from across the school, and with a mix of experience and seniority, to allow fair representation and subdivision for particular tasks. "In the first couple of meetings, we talked in general terms about the way forward. Then we moved to more specific discussions about hardware purchases, different platforms and staff responsibilities."
The group has taken lots of outside advice, but realises that many ICT experts have strong preferences. "People who become expert tend to adopt a certain position," says MacIver.
* Loders C of E Primary, Dorset Loders Primary, with 75 pupils, two full-time and three part-time teachers, is typical of many small village schools. In terms of ICT, Loders does very well - it has five PCs (four of them networked), six Acorn machines, a scanner, colour printers and a digital camera. And the school has an excellent website (www.loders.dorset.sch.uk).
Up to now, though, how well equipped a small school is has depended on whether or not there was an enthusiast on the staff. As Loders head Mike Kite says: "A key issue is reliability - if something doesn't work and nobody knows how to fix it. A small school is heavily dependent on having somebody on the staff who knows what to do." He feels, too, that some aspects of ICT - control technology, for example - have been missed out in some small schools.
NGfL and associated funding for training should change that, he said. "Hopefully, those issues will be addressed."
Heading for the Superhighway was produced by BT Community Partnership Programme. For more information or to get a free copy call Carl Carter on 0171 356 6597 or carl.carterbt.com