Budgeting for the personal touch

6th January 2006 at 00:00
Ray Barker thinks ICT funding needs to allow greater diversity in schools - otherwise plans for individually tailored lessons will never succeed

The new Government White Paper is blunt. "No longer will it be acceptable for young people to be denied the opportunity to achieve their full potential, whatever their abilities and talents; or for artificial barriers to prevent choice and diversity from playing its full part in delivering a good education."

So now the focus is on 'individualised' learning and the White Paper makes a big issue of 'the opportunity to tailor lessons ... to the individual needs of each pupil.' We all know that ICT is one of the key areas of resourcing that can help to achieve this. But we also know that ICT cannot do this by itself. Many different tools are required when it comes to catering for individual learning preferences. We need to offer real opportunities for blended learning and for this, one size does not fit all.

ICT has developed swiftly in schools since 1997, but it's been hard work. I like to use the snowball analogy. Teachers have been pushing the ICT snowball up the hill and as technology develops and teachers' needs grow, the snowball has become bigger and heavier. I believe we are nearly at the top of the hill now - teacher confidence has never been so great and classrooms are changing. It would be a shame to see this snowball slipping back or not reaching the top of the hill when it's so close. So what could stop it?

Well, let's consider funding. Targeted funding towards ICT in schools has resulted in a huge infrastructure growth in schools. The British Educational Suppliers Association's (Besa) most recent research shows the average primary school has more than 40 computers; for secondary schools, the number is 250. By now, 86 per cent of primary and 97 per cent of secondary schools will have at least one interactive whiteboard. But from 20067, head teachers and governors will no longer have to deal with so many budget headings and ICT funding will be placed somewhere in their School Development Grant (Standards Fund). The government wants strong, autonomous institutions working in partnership with LEAs to deliver the challenging agenda for 'transformation.' But when schools are working out their budgets, will ICT remain an important priority? Will initiatives such as workforce reform lead to funding being shifted towards staffing? If it's a choice between teachers or new computers, I think we we can all guess the answer.

Central procurement is now being portrayed as a way of saving money and making efficiencies of scale. But surely this also reduces choice and the ability for teachers to be able to deliver the new agenda? Take the example of student e-portfolios. Issues such as "interoperability", or compatibility, are vital - can pupils take their records with them to anywhere in the country? There is talk of providing all schools with a learning platform under a framework contract, but many heads will prefer to choose their own with interoperability as just one feature. What price choice and diversity or individualised learning?

One solution might be to ring-fence money for this particular initiative, with schools given the opportunity to buyback into central services for infrastructure. However, there are those who argue that framework contracts do not work. They are perceived to drive down price, and don't improve customer service. ''The bitterness of poor quality lingers long after the sweetness of low price' is a proverb that should hang on all headteachers'

office walls.

The Building Schools for the Future (BSF) project (see p79) is currently worth pound;2.2 billion a year and will have an impact on all secondary schools over the next few years. ICT is at its heart and BSF schools will be "fully equipped" under managed services. But what happens if new resources are needed to support individuals learning? Where will the money come from to achieve this if new BSF schools are already considered to be "fully equipped?"

An additional ring-fenced pound;125 million in Electronic Learning Credits (ELCs) has been announced for up to 2008. ELCs have been very effective in increasing access to content and giving software companies the reassurance that there is a viable market. It's helped to drive the production of innovative and exciting materials. If we want more embedding of ICT in all curriculum areas, then this ring-fencing needs to continue, just as it did in its own way to equip schools with an effective infrastructure. Schools used to be the "oasis" where ICT was concerned - homes were always "the desert". Now this is reversed in most areas, with many pupils often having more powerful ICT at home. All children need the most innovative material in class. Besa research shows that teachers have become more confident the more material they have in school, but most ELCs are still spent in the core subjects - we need to expand and extend on this.

New financial independence presumes that head teachers are good leaders who can provide the educational vision and know what is required to make that happen. But if we are giving responsibility to headteachers and holding them accountable then we have to do it completely. There should be no half measures - schools should be able to choose solutions that are right for them in all areas.

Ray Barker is director of the British Educational Suppliers Association (Besa), and was talking to George Cole

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