Schools? Who needs them? Well not in their traditional form anyway. Despite numerous attempts over the years to create a blueprint for the perfect school, along with a handful of beguiling CTCs and technical colleges, observers are not yet convinced.
"The concept of the global village is becoming a reality for some schools as computers change their learning styles and environment. The current model, with its rigid classroom, has been useful only because there was no alternative," says Doug Brown, chairman of the British Computer Society's School of the Future project.
Mr Brown, who is also an information and communication technology (ICT) adviser with Birmingham City Council, believes that, although there will still be schools as institutions, the millennium school will be vastly different from what it is today, and the concept of the nine-to-four school day will become obsolete.
These notions have been formed as a result of several months of research by the project's six-member committee of teachers, lecturers and researchers into the relevance of ICT to schools and how it changes the way they operate.
The objective of the project is to raise the profile of the current discussion on ICT in schools, which its members believe has so far been fuelled by misunderstanding.
The committee met in different locations to enable them to look at the myriad ways in which schools in the UK are using technology. One issue that caused particular interest is the impact of the Internet. They paid specific attention to how rural schools are using their Internet and satellite links to communicate information.
Some of the projects unearthed by these forays include: Lancaster's Royal Grammar school's link to the Internet via a radio network; primary-aged children designing their own Web pages at Robin Hood Primary in Birmingham; Harvard professor Howard Gardner's research into multiple intelligences (there are seven - including linguistical and mathematical for example), which has thrown up the theory that one of the reasons for the success of information and communication technology is that it addresses all these intelligences.
Eileen Devonshire, who represents the British Educational Suppliers Association on the committee, says the current ICT discussion is very diverse.
"Everywhere you look you have ICT in education, but there are no ideas of how it might impact on the learning environment. Our group is trying to pull together all the information available to get an overall picture."
The research findings, which are currently being summarised into a report provisionally called "2000 and Beyond - A School Odyssey", also point to the increasing realisation that in order to use ICT successfully schools must change their culture - how students learn and how teachers teach. This will also involve them looking at how teachers are appointed.
"We are more concerned about the way in which people are learning and the new methodology that the computer can enable rather than the technology and what it can do," says Mr Brown. "The nature of technology and the pace at which it moves will force schools to revolutionise their approach to education. They will have to do a major rethink on their size and structure. However, from our findings we believe schools will be at the hub of a learning community where the home and other institutions will also play a part in children's learning."
The school of the future will need to improve pupil-teacher ratios, and the ratio of teachers to technician s and resources. Eileen Devonshire, who acknowledges that her interest in the school of the future is to inspire investment in ICT resources, says: "People are underestimating the financial resources needed if we are to move to a school environment where the infrastructure is to include provisions for ICT. We are compelled to examine the implications and cost element in that."
A hefty chunk of the research has been conducted in collaboration with a number of schools in Australia, the US and several European countries as a basis for starting a debate on an international level.
Don Passey, senior psychology research fellow at Lancaster University and charged with editing the final report, says teachers should be given the freedom to go about inventing the schools of the future. He stresses that the committee is keen to set up a debate and does not want teachers to see themselves merely as recipients of the information.
"It is not clear yet what shape the school of the future will take. There may well be more than one model and we want to encourage schools to experiment," he says. "We don't see ourselves as owning anything, all we want to do is generate debate."
So if you thought you were going to get an actual blueprint of what the ideal school of the future should look like, forget it. This project is more about how you go through the process of creating one rather than imposing a designed-by-committee model.
The school of the future committee confirms it does not have all the answers but its publication, which will have a number of scenarios of good practice, highlights the fact that ICT enables those pupils who have some form of social deprivation to catch up or indeed progress far faster than would otherwise be the case.
"From our research we recognise this is also about a major issue of social inclusion. We are saying, 'Here are some ideas, let's talk about them and share the best practice of the present so the future can capitalise on it'," says Mr Brown.
The report on the School of the Future will be launched on January 14, 1998 at the BETT 98 technology show. A copy will be posted on the World Wide Web beforehand to stimulate discussion.
Further details from: BESA: http:www.besanet.org.uk BCS: 1 Sanford Street, Swindon SN1 1HJ
Doug Brown's e-mail address is: firstname.lastname@example.org. gov.uk