Edinburgh is to invest Pounds 6 million in IT links for schools. Seonag MacKinnon asks if this is a good use of the council's money
Edinburgh has chosen to spearhead the Government's energetic approach to information technology in schools with an investment of Pounds 6 million to make it the first authority in Britain to have every nursery, primary, secondary and special school, plus community education centres - 157 schools and 10 community centres in all - linked to the Internet and an intranet.
Councillors, cash rich with Pounds 70 million from the sale of a shopping centre, are sowing this sum over three years in the hope that at the beginning of the new millennium the city will have an education service that attracts investment and creates jobs. This fits with one of the council's declared objectives of becoming one of the leading knowledge-creating cities, "a confident, prosperous, outward-looking place - a truly global city".
School managers are likely to be enthusiastic about a Web server and replacement of the old SCAMP management software with Phoenix, to provide quick access to central departmental information such as pupil transport, free meals and clothing grants. Earlier this year, chaos reigned in the city when janitors were on strike. Officials, teachers and parents were in prolonged confusion as to which schools would open. E-mail might have prevented many of those jammed phone lines and confused actions.
But teachers are likely to be divided on the merits of a quantum leap in curricular use, with access from each classroom to millions of pages of information on any subject anywhere in the world, plus the prospect of video-conferencing. It is hard perhaps to work up enthusiasm for the substantial capital outlay and revenue rising to almost Pounds 340,000 a year to install about 3,500 computers by 2001 if your mind is focused on unglamorous basics such as the state of the school building and the number of books you have to go round.
Some tough questions are likely to be asked in this city, renowned for its financial canniness, where conspicuous consumerism is frowned upon: Have the councillors, unaccustomed to cash bonanzas, opted for a self-indulgent showpiece policy? Will computers just gather dust with teachers who have often had insufficient IT training, experience and back-up? Has the council committed itself to a permanent financial ball and chain, as equipment will need replacing every two to three years to keep up with innovations? Could this be the new Forth railway bridge, which needs to be repainted from the beginning as soon as workers have reached the end?
When the last penny is spent in 2000 and the new bill for updating to hang on to the coat-tails of technological advances is presented, will the council rue its decision?
If some teachers are wary of opening the school door wide to IT, they are in line with Pat O'Donnell of the National Association of SchoolmastersUnion of Women Teachers, who has called for computers to be banned from primaries.
Isobel Vass, manager of Edinburgh council support services, has a different view: "We can't stop the movement of time," she says. "Right now our schools are in the Dark Ages as far as technology is concerned, while the business community has forged ahead. Children go zooming ahead at this age. It's like learning the piano when young."
Mrs Vass backs up her argument by pointing to the independent Stevenson inquiry, commissioned by Tony Blair and David Blunkett when they were in opposition. The report states: "We wish to see a society where ICT has permeated the entirety of education (as it will the rest of society), so that it is no longer a talking point but taken for granted - rather as electricity has come to be." It goes on to suggest that our provision in relation to other countries should not be grounds for complacency, since this is like "being in the lead after 500 metres of a marathon".
Mrs Vass says that, although Edinburgh prides itself in being a "leading council", the new IT programme will reflect only the world in which children already live.
"Right now children come into school and find something of a lesser quality to what they may have at home." At present, 22 per cent of homes have a computer, a figure expected to rise to 44 per cent by the year 2001.
As for teacher training, Mrs Vass says the budget allows for two IT curriculum development officers at a cost of Pounds 50,000 per year. And there should be a cascade effect from the Scottish Council for Educational Technology, which is training 7,000 teachers over several years.
Asked about the risk of children's basic skills suffering, Mrs Vass says that computers are there to enhance learning, not replace it. As for the risk of technological innovations imposing a permanent drain on council resources, she says: "We would never buy anything if we followed that argument. How long do you wait? We have to start somewhere. As soon as children learn the skills, they are transferable to the new technology."
She says that the council aims to achieve good value by insisting on three measures. Companies will be asked for "future-proofed" assurances that equipment, cabling and computers can be scaled up with a changed item or an extra item.
Connectivity is one of the other criteria. Any building should be able to be electronically linked in time to other buildings, such as libraries. And all equipment must be compatible. There have been problems in the past with schools snapping up bargains, but then finding they cannot exchange information with other schools. IT managers highlight this major problem with piecemeal development when urged to adopt a tentative, little-by-little approach.
A formal announcement on the choice of supplier of the server has yet to be made, although the California-based firm Sun Micro Systems is the name being talked about in council corridors. The company has put itself in a favourable position, with the offer of up to 20 free servers if the cabling is in place.
Hardware has not yet gone out to tender, as IT staff are following up pilot schemes and consulting teachers on best use. Lap-tops could be more appropriate in classrooms because of the lack of space. Palm-top computers could become as common as calculators in secondary schools at some point in the future.
E-Mates, being tested by Apple, are between the size of a lap-top and a palm-top and could be a common sight in primaries, as they are easier than a palm-top for tiny fingers to operate.
Mrs Vass says: "We just won't recognise classrooms in three years' time. "
* Neighbouring West Lothian Council is proceeding with its CREATIS Project (Creating the Information Society in West Lothian), with a grant from the Scottish Office of Pounds 2.73million over a three-year period, a contribution from Sun Micro Systems of around Pounds 125,000 and further sponsors in the pipeline. West Lothian schools, libraries and community education centres will all benefit. Meetings have been held with secondary and primary headteachers, community education and library managers to establish the key areas to be developed. A project manager has just been appointed.