Byte the dust

30th July 2010 at 01:00
Hundreds of millions of pounds are spent on ICT equipment every year, but there is growing evidence that school cupboards are brimming with unused and obsolete kit that should never have been bought in the first place. Nick Morrison reports

It must have seemed a banker of an idea. The marriage of digital technology and trusted classroom aide seemed made in heaven. And to cement their reputation, they had gone down a storm at the BETT show for new educational technology.

Unfortunately, this time the science had outstripped its practical application; 18 months on, the two visualisers - digital versions of an overhead projector - are languishing in a cupboard. Even more ignominiously, they have been superseded by another version, more user- friendly and much cheaper.

"They weren't used an awful lot," admits Peter Banks. "They were too complicated, and while one person got used to it it was too much to take in for anyone else."

The past decade has been a golden age for ICT in schools. ICT budgets for UK schools have risen from pound;415 million in 2002 to pound;577 million last year, according to the British Educational Suppliers Association (Besa).

But the demise of the Government's schools technology agency Becta and, more significantly, the decision to freeze the Building Schools for the Future (BSF) programme suggest this era could be at an end. Around one- tenth of the pound;55 billion BSF scheme has been earmarked for ICT as shiny new buildings have been accompanied by shiny new technology.

Now that the age of austerity is upon us, it seems appropriate to ask what difference all this ICT has made. While few would disagree that ICT has brought huge benefits to schools, voices questioning whether it is a waste of money are getting louder. Education Secretary Michael Gove called a halt to BSF on the grounds that huge sums were being spent needlessly: the implication is that not all the millions lavished on ICT kit as part of school rebuilds and refurbishment have been well spent, particularly when research has raised doubts over the impact of the investment on raising standards.

Spending on new technology is always a risk. Mr Banks, assistant head and new technology manager at Broadgreen International School in Liverpool, spent pound;2,000 on the two visualisers when they were just coming on to the market. After they had lain largely unused for 12 months, simplified ones that cost less than pound;300 became available. Unlike their predecessors, they have proved a big hit. "They're pitched at the right level now and the teachers love them," he says.

While pound;1,000 each made the original visualisers a relatively pricey piece of kit, it is small potatoes against the vast amounts spent on technology for the classroom.

Even before the demise of BSF, the recession had put the squeeze on ICT spending. Excluding software and digital applications, schools will spend some pound;556 million on ICT in the 2010-11 financial year, according to Besa. A typical primary is expected to spend pound;13,380; a typical secondary pound;62,970 - decreases on this financial year of 4.4 and 2.7 per cent respectively.

Writing in his Sunday Times column in February this year, Chris Woodhead, former chief schools inspector and now chairman of private schools chain Cognita, said there was no evidence that IT made a positive difference to learning. Often it is not used properly, and often it doesn't work, he said, warning that the "obsession" with updating technology had resulted in millions of pounds being wasted.

As a specialist ICT school, Broadgreen spends well above average on technology - about pound;250,000 a year. Mr Banks believes the days of schools spending large sums on equipment that would scarcely be taken out of its box have gone, but acknowledges that there has been a tendency to buy unwisely. "It happens with software," he says. "People can be seduced by software, which can be expensive but ends up not being used."

Software that promises dramatic results can be very appealing, says Jean Gross, the Government's communication champion. She says that although technology has a crucial role in helping children to learn, some of its claims are unsubstantiated.

She cites some integrated learning software (ILS) that purports to solve literacy or numeracy problems, but lacks the research findings to back up its claims.

"If schools have a lot of pupils coming in with low literacy levels it can be seen as a quick fix," she says. "But I would be concerned if schools were sold something without knowing the evidence."

The squeeze on budgets may force schools to be more selective in spending on technology, but this may not be a bad thing. Technology should also not be seen as a replacement for teaching, Mrs Gross warns. "We will always need more talk in class," she says. "Technology can be a stimulus to talk, but it can also be an excuse not to talk. Every school needs to think about how it uses technology."

There is another pressure on schools to spend money on technology. A study by academics at the Open and Staffordshire universities, published in the British Educational Research Journal in 2005, found that spending on ICT made little difference to A-level results and only had a significant effect on GCSE results when the school also had a sixth form.

Where ICT spending did make a difference was in a school's Ofsted report. Provision for the subject was positively related to a school's inspection success. This, the researchers said, suggested either that the exam system needed reform or that "education is biased in favour of ICT".

Armando Di-Finizio found himself at the centre of a controversy earlier this year when he was reported as saying millions of pounds are being wasted on ICT in schools. As head of the pound;24 million Bristol Brunel Academy, one of the first to open under BSF, his words caused a stir.

He says he is "an absolute advocate" of technology and that his remarks were taken out of context, but concedes that there are grounds for concern. Schools can easily be seduced into buying equipment that is not always needed, he says.

"ICT is essential in schools, but schools are in danger of buying white elephant technology," he adds. "There are so many flash salesmen and it is important that we're not swept into the mentality of `new is always the best'."

The key to avoiding wasting money, he adds, is to identify the need first rather than be taken in by something that is shiny but has little practical use.

As a flagship scheme, Bristol Brunel incorporates some of the latest technology, including one of the country's most powerful wireless systems. But some elements have been superfluous. Electronic card readers used in registration, for example, have proved to be a duplication of effort and open to abuse.

"It is easy for a child to share their card so the teacher still has to take the register to make sure the child is in the room," he says. "The card readers are quite gimmicky. They look flash, but they're not necessary."

But even though the school has some equipment it does not need, he says they have made it work and it has enhanced learning. But former ICT teacher Mike Todd believes there is a danger in concentrating so much effort - and resources - into technology. Although he is now retired, Mr Todd has watched the increasing focus on technology with unease.

"ICT is very, very useful, but you have to recognise its limitations," he says. "When it takes the place of practical activity, that is when you should start to worry."

Mr Todd, who has taught at primary and secondary levels, recalls one occasion when a head asked him to write a maths program for a dominoes game. "I looked at him and said, `Why don't you just buy a set of dominoes?'," he says. "The danger is that ICT is impoverishing other areas of the curriculum. You end up spending lots of money on technology at the expense of everywhere else."

Mr Banks at Broadgreen International agrees that it is important to match new equipment to an identifiable need, and that it should have a proven benefit.

"Teachers don't want fancy new gizmos; they want something that does what they want it to do," he says. "If it is quicker to do things the traditional way, why bother doing it any other way?" he says.

He concedes that some of the demand for new technology is driven by pupils' expectations. Children have access to so much technology outside school that it is sometimes the only way to get their attention. "We have got to try to get to the kids through the mediums they like to use," he says.

Books are usually the area that misses out. The study by academics at the Open and Staffordshire universities found evidence that while ICT expenditure had little effect on exam results, spending on books had a significant positive impact.

"Our findings are consistent with the argument that schools may be allocating too few resources to books and too many to ICT," the researchers concluded. Since that study was published, spending on ICT in schools has increased by almost 10 per cent, while 20 per cent fewer pupils had access to a school library between 1997 and 2007, according to the School Library Association.

Mr Todd believes technology is often the easy option, both for policymakers looking to gain kudos for investing in education and for teachers looking to engage classes. Schools can also feel under pressure from parents who expect the latest technology to be available for their children. "ICT is often the first thing that clicks with a class, and teachers have tended to follow that because it is the easy road to go down," he says.

Far from assuming that only ICT will get pupils interested, he argues, teachers should aim to provide their classes with new experiences. For children leading technology-rich lives, this means a greater emphasis on books.

Interactive whiteboards (IWBs) are symbolic of education's digital revolution, consigning the blackboard to the status of a folk memory. At prices ranging from pound;600 upwards, millions of pounds have been spent installing them.

But not everyone is convinced of their value. A study by Newcastle University researchers, published in 2006, found that while most teachers believed the IWB would improve test scores, they had no noticeable impact on key stage 2 Sats results. The academics behind the study suggested that while IWBs helped with the pace of a lesson, they could get in the way of picking up when pupils did not understand.

Roger Mitchell is not a fan of the IWB. None of the classrooms at the school where he is headteacher, Ripple Primary in Barking, Essex, is equipped with an IWB. While he has technical qualms about the whiteboards, such as the size of the screen, his main reservation is about the difficulties of getting the children involved in the lesson. "The key is interactivity," he says. "Technology is a fantastic tool to enhance teaching and learning, but it has got to be a two-way process. There are many times when I have seen big screens just used as tellies."

But rejecting the IWB does not mean the school has rejected technology. Instead, teachers use graphics tablets that can be operated as they move around the room and passed from pupil to pupil. "It provides a higher level of control and the pace of the lesson is better," he says.

Ripple Primary's decision to eschew IWBs in favour of graphics tablets highlights one of the dangers of investing heavily in technology: however appealing a piece of equipment appears, there is a good chance that another bit of kit will be along soon that is even more useful.

Mr Di-Finizio warns that the range of technologies in use - from filming for GCSE projects to paying for lunches - makes schools particularly vulnerable to technological advances. "We're going through a transitional period and that is a huge problem," he says. "The technology doesn't always keep up with people's ideas of what should be there, and sometimes there are things that maybe aren't ready to be in the public domain."

White elephants, of course, are not confined to ICT - the difference is that they tend to be more expensive. Schools are also more likely to be under-using the equipment they have, says Mr Di-Finizio. "They might be using it just to print things off or to get the kids to produce a presentation," he says. "That is good because it motivates the kids, but it should be much more than that. Often schools don't explore the full potential of ICT."

Sometimes this comes down to teachers being uncomfortable with technology. Mr Banks says some staff at Broadgreen were initially hesitant about embracing the school's vision of how technology should be used in the classroom. Keeping them on board is a continuous process. "If they have a bad experience with a piece of software they tend not to go back to it," he says.

The need to renew equipment is a recurring expense. Broadgreen refreshes parts of its network every year, and none of the computers in the ICT suites is more than three years old. The old machines are then redistributed to other departments. Funding from government and charity initiatives has helped the school to get up to a ratio of 1.6 pupils per computer.

Ripple Primary had a substantial injection of new technology after taking part in a pilot run by Becta, receiving pound;600,000 to spend on technology over four years to 2006. Although this level of investment has now fallen off, Mr Mitchell spent around pound;40,000 on ICT this year - three times the average primary school budget - and expects to spend pound;20,000 in each of the following two years.

But he recognises that it is impossible to get everything right and, in hindsight, says he would have made different decisions about the wireless network he had installed in 2002 as it proved too slow for pupils to be able to use portable kit around the school. "Eight years is a long time in ICT - if we did it again we would have more (wireless) of a different type and it would be higher quality," he says.

He is an advocate of technology, but believes it is a mistake to think ICT can make a poor lesson any better. "These technologies can enhance good teaching; they can't replace good teaching," he adds.

This is the philosophy at Dyke House Sports and Technology College, a secondary in Hartlepool. Technology is not valued for its own sake, but for how it can improve teaching and learning, says John Taylor, deputy head in charge of ICT.

He says creating a whole-school technology strategy - drawn up by the teachers themselves - has been crucial in ensuring they only buy technology they know they can use. "We look at what we want to do as a school, and then the ICT we need to do it," he says.

Although the school spends some pound;155,000 a year on ICT - more than twice the average secondary ICT budget - Mr Taylor says he will look to borrow equipment before deciding whether to buy. The school borrowed Qwizdom electronic voting systems to be sure there was an educational use before buying them.

"The way you waste money is to buy in kit and then find you have no use for it," he says. "If the teacher thinks it is hard work, they're not going to use it. We have very high levels of equipment across the school but we haven't found a pot of gold; we're just using existing resources wisely."

Obsolescence is a perennial problem, however. It is in the nature of technology that it will one day be overtaken. Although Dyke House uses IWBs and has suites of desktop computers, Mr Taylor says they are now looking to move towards tablets and hand-held devices.

"We got into interactive whiteboards very early on and we have them in every classroom," he says. "There's a school of thought that says they're yesterday's technology, but we bought them yesterday. You just accept that you need to keep moving."

He believes technology has been instrumental in taking Dyke House from 38 per cent of pupils getting five A-Cs at GCSE in 2002, to 91 per cent last year. But in the end, technology is only a tool. "ICT has enabled us to change the way we teach, but doesn't do it on its own," he says.

The danger is in putting too much faith in ICT and viewing it as a cure- all. "Technology is a tool and is no substitute for good teaching," says Mr Banks at Broadgreen International. Technology may have transformed teaching, but it is also a bottomless pit that requires constant refilling. This may have been possible when money seemed no object, but in a changed economic climate it may be time to question whether ICT is really all it is cracked up to be.

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