Children need to have hard fun;Interview;Nigel Paine

3rd September 1999 at 01:00
The technology man who is defeated by Tomb Raider heroine Lara Croft tells Chris Johnston about his plans for schools.

WITH an office on the 23rd floor of London's Millbank Tower you could say that Nigel Paine has gone up in the world.

The building, better known as Labour's HQ, is a stone's throw from Parliament, so the new chief executive of the Technology Colleges Trust is also close to the Government that wants to see his movement expand.

The trust is championing the need to give schools high-speed Internet connections. It wants to see Tony Blair's promises of a technology revolution in education become reality.

After nine years as chief executive of the Scottish Council for Educational Technology, Paine was approached by Sir Cyril Taylor, chairman of the trust.

He says of his decision to move: "I'd been running the council for nine years and I think I did an OK job. But in some ways I genuinely believe that the council needed someone new."

Paine praises Sir Cyril's achievement in making specialist schools popular with Blair's government even though technology colleges were initially opposed by Labour in opposition.

He also wanted to work more closely with schools than he had in Scotland, but perhaps the biggest lure was the chance to develop a broadband network giving schools the high-speed Internet access they need to use innovations such as video-conferencing. "I'd been frustrated that we hadn't been able to get something like that off the ground in Scotland, and the chance to get in on the ground floor was exciting."

The trust is working with communications firm NTL and will have about 200 schools connected by the end of the year.

The cost of the link is not cheap - about pound;15,000 annually - but that is much lower than it would be through commercial providers.

Paine acknowledges that the cost of technology is still an issue and that some remain unconvinced of its role in education. However, he views it as a necessity: "What it boils down to is giving young people choices about their lives and the opportunity to get high-value jobs.

"The only way that can happen is with open skills they can apply to new technologies as they emerge."

The more immediate incentives, he says, are the way computers motivate pupils, help them learn more effectively, and make teachers' lives easier.

A real cause for concern is what he describes as the contradiction of the Government pushing for "back to basics" on one hand while promoting technology on the other.

"They're saying you either use technology or you go for whole-class teaching and write on the blackboard, and I think that's a very dangerous model," Paine comments.

"Technology should inform everything you do and it will transform all the processes that you use. There is nothing wrong with whole-class teaching using technology."

While some parents and teachers remain mystified as to why many children would rather play a computer game than read a book, Paine believes it can be summed up in one word: interactivity.

He says American educational technology guru Seymour Papert hit the nail on the head by saying computers give children "hard fun". "Kids don't play games because they're easy, they play them because they're difficult. They like those challenges and are hugely stimulated by them - that's why they do things most adults find beyond their comprehension."

The father of two daughters, both at university, he readily admits he is no match for their computer games skills: "I haven't got the dexterity or the patience."

He may not be able to deftly manipulate Lara Croft, the machine gun-toting hero of the successful Tomb Raider, but Paine does have some other qualities. An excellent public speaker, he is also a professor at Napier University in Edinburgh, where he is involved with staff training rather than lecturing.

Paine has worked in adult education for most of his career and his interest in using technology for learning was sparked by research for the then Scottish Education Department. This looked at ways of replicating the Open University at lower levels, particularly in further education.

However, it was the release of the first Apple Mac in 1984 and then Microsoft's Windows 3.0 operating system five years later that really excited him about using computers to aid learning.

He wants the trust to help schools to use technology to improve results. He says the trust must be more proactive in sharing the good practice found in technology colleges, particularly the original 15 city technology colleges.

As the momentum of technology gathers pace, Paine says more naysayers are coming out of the woodwork. But in his mind, some of their opposition has little to do with technology and much more to do with control of information.

There are, he insists, few computer-owning parents with teenagers who have not sought their offspring's assistance with the wretched machine at some stage.

"Twenty years ago there was nothing that a child could do that a parent could not do faster or better. But the concepts of age and experience and wisdom are being turned on their head and some parents do not like appearing hopeless in front of their children."

The same scenario is true in the classroom, but Paine says that if teachers are happy to let their children get the printer to work at home, why not adopt the same attitude at school?

He concedes, though, that this will involve a fairly radical change in mindset.

"You just have to accept that however well trained you are, you're never going to be up to speed with the best of the kids, because their brains are wired differently. How many kids went on a Lottery-funded training course or opened a manual to learn how to use a computer?"

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