'The plan is to link every school.' - Britain's second city is putting its faith in computer-based learning to raise standards. George Cole reports.
Birmingham has the dubious honour of having one of the five most deprived areas in Britain (the others are all in London). It is little wonder that the city council is determined to change things. The education department has established an ambitious programme called Success for Everyone, in which information and communications technology plays a central role in raising standards and opening up opportunities for Birmingham's youth.
Doug Brown, ICT adviser and international liaison for the department, describes technology as a "catalyst". "ICT is valuable if it supports what you are trying to achieve," he says. Few would disagree with this, although some eyebrows will probably be raised over one of the ways Birmingham is using technology in its schools.
The council plans to spend pound;4.5 million from the Single Regeneration Budget on equipping all of its 450 or so primary and secondary schools with an integrated learning system (ILS) -computer-managed learning. The software arranges curriculum tasks for students and tailors new tasks on the basis of their performance. Teachers can also easily check how students are progressing.
Brown says the real cost is closer to pound;7 million when you strip out the discounts the authority was able to negotiate. Each school will receive a server and four workstations running ILS software such as Global Learning or SuccessMaker.
Integrated learning systems have been described by critics as "drill-and-skill" because they use closed programs to develop specific skills in language or numeracy. ILS software differs from other computer programs because it frees the teacher from evaluating student performance and allows them to concentrate on explaining concepts.
Their use is controversial because experts are not convinced that they are cost-effective. An evaluation report by the British Educational Communications and Technology Agency last year concluded: "ILS systems have a long way to go before they can receive unqualified endorsement."
Brown explains why Birmingham has stuck its neck out: "We're not saying that ILS is a panacea, nor do we see it replacing teachers. It's part of an integrated approach to literacy and numeracy." He says that each school will target at least 40 pupils using the technology.
Brown says that ICT has a positive impact on literacy and numeracy results for some students and that ILSis one aspect of this strategy. He adds that ILS was not part of Birmingham's Grid for Learning strategy and was developed before the grid came along, but that the council is now attempting to bring the two together.
Before the decision to introduce ILS was made, Birmingham held a large conference for all its schools to discuss the results of a first-phase evaluation of the system. Brown says teachers were enthusiastic to try it for themselves: "Many have increased the number of workstations from four to ten," he says.
Birmingham has moved from having one hardware supplier to four preferred providers: RM, Tiny, Dell and Clifton Research (which supplies Mitsubishi equipment). "We're not prepared to accept closed standards," Brown says. "We encourage our suppliers to work together and they do. Some schools have a network server from one company and its workstations from another."
Not surprisingly, Birmingham is pressing ahead with the National Grid for Learning. It received the largest slice of the Standards Fund for the grid (pound;4 million) and is busily wiring up its schools.
The plan is to link every local school to a Birmingham Grid for Learning, which in turn will be connected to the city council's network that links museums, libraries and other community venues. This in turn will be hooked up to the government's NGFL.
Brown talks of a "Learning Gestalt". "We tell schools that the only way this will be a success is if everybody contributes,"he says. "You will get more out of it than you put into it."
The first phase of the programme involves connecting 89 schools to the grid. "The schools are not necessarily IT experts - it could be history or another subject," Brown says. There will be two centres of excellence in every ward. A further 120 to 125 schools will be linked up by the end of summer, with the rest completed during the following two years.
The council has struck a deal with the city's cable TVcompany to provide both high-capacity ISDN lines and even higher-speed connections. "The higher-speed leased line costs pound;2,410 a year, which is still expensive for some schools, but it is about a quarter of its normal cost," Brown says.
The initiative to get teachers trained to use ICT is critical, he says. "If we don't get that right, then ICT will fall flat." With so much going on, Doug Brown is very busy but he is happy this way. "I'm looking forward to an exciting future."
* CLASSROOM VIEW
Pupils at Robin Hood primary school in Hall Green, Birmingham, are some of the thousands who stand to benefit from the city's plans. Ann Aston, the deputy head, endorses the council's vision and expects the strategy to be extremely positive. 'We are very enouraged by what they are trying to do,' she says. 'It seems that promises will be kept.' Funding will allow the school to install a second network, providing access to infants for the first time. Ms Aston says other schools stand to benefit, particularly those that do not have good ICT equipment.