"To be blunt, there were fears the handheld devices would be stolen"
Ray Barker could quite possibly still be a classroom teacher had he not answered a small advertisement in The TES in the late Eighties. After 12 years teaching English in a London secondary and examining the subject at GCSE level, he thought that the world outside school might be worth exploring and responded to the advert. It was placed by educational publishers Folens, which at the time was moving into Britain from Ireland.
That move was the start of a career path that has culminated in Barker's appointment earlier this year as director of the British Educational Suppliers Association (BESA), reporting to chief executive Dominic Savage. The job came up when his predecessor, the dynamic Eileen Devonshire, decamped to the exhibitions division of Emap.
Barker brings to the role a range of experience, both in profit-making and non-commercial organisations, and considerable knowledge of the impact that information and communications technology (ICT) can make in education.
After a period with Folens that often involved writing books himself (because there was no one else to do it), Barker wanted to explore the nascent world of electronic publishing. Some consultancy work on educational multimedia, or "multi-mediocre" as he then called it, followed, before an invitation to run an education project for the London Docklands Development Corporation arrived.
In 1994, three years before its remit expired, the organisation decided to try to improve literacy and numeracy and computer skills in the area by spending pound;1 million on information technology for local schools as its swansong.
Fifteen primaries in the boroughs of Tower Hamlets, Southwark and Newham joined the project, developed with the National Literacy Association (NLA), that was aimed at seven-year-olds.
A 10-station network and software system, including the British-made Global integrated learning system, was installed in each school and 500 Acorn (Psion) Pocketbook 2 handheld devices given to pupils. "They caused a bit of a revolution because they had never been used in education before and, to be blunt, there were fears they would be stolen," Barker says. "They were a big success at school and at home as well - they got to people and really took over the project."
Research revealed that significant reading gains were made by pupils, proving it was possible for children anywhere to read at the same rate despite disadvantage. However, he is adamant that it was the range of literacy activities, and not just the 20 minutes a day each pupil spent using ILS, that resulted in the gains. The key was the "communications" element of ICT, he says.
When the project ended in 1998, Barker joined the NLA's projects and consultancy division at he time when the literacy hour was introduced to schools. In his capacity as a literacy expert, he developed some materials for the National Literacy Strategy with Glenn Franklin, who worked with him on the Docklands project. Barker jokes he was the first to draw the literacy hour clock, and notes that over-zealous Government officials asked that numbers be put on it, fearing teachers may not otherwise understand it.
Next was an adventurous but short-lived foray back into business with a US software firm trying to expand into the UK, followed by the directorship of the Southend-on-Sea education action zone. "The Docklands project was like an action zone, but what I soon realised was that while it was my baby and I could do what I liked with it, an education action zone was more controlled," Barker says.
After setting it up and equipping every teacher with a laptop, he soon became disillusioned with a role that largely involved being "an accountant and a meetings organiser" and accepted the BESA offer. "It seemed to be a good mix of business and the education world, and as I've had experience of both I can see things from both sides." Barker is still getting first-hand information about the way schools work in his role as chair of governors of Honilands primary in Enfield, north London, and from his continued writing for schools.
One of his tasks will be to raise the profile of BESA among schools to something like the level of awareness that the trade association enjoys in the industry, and promote its website as a source of information and advice about products. Barker says members must comply with a quality charter, so schools know that a BESA member is a reliable supplier. Only about 40 per cent of firms in the market are members.
He notes that the association has a good working relationship with government agencies and departments, which do heed its advice when appropriate; the national curriculum for science was amended after BESAwarned that schools would not have enough equipment for the proposed activities.
Continued changes to the way schools are funded, for example, will have a big impact on BESA members, Barker says. The increasing importance of the Standards Fund means the old rush to use up unspent cash by March 31 each year has now shifted to July 31. "That changes our members' entire marketing plans, because it is now less effective to blitz schools in February or March."
The intense focus on ICT in education in recent years has not always been helpful for some companies in the association with more traditional products. Barker feels that concerns about technology in education will calm down, and notes that there are no major ICT presentations at BESA's annual meeting next month, when learning and technology minister Michael Wills launches BESA's ICT survey at the House of Commons.