Col goes into the breach

14th March 2003 at 00:00
George Cole tracks the progress of the National Grid for Learning and assesses how Curriculum Online will carry on the momentum of ICT in schools

The launch of the Curriculum Online portal in January represents the latest piece of the jigsaw in the Department for Education and Skills' (DfES) national communications strategy. It also heralds a new phase in the Government's ICT in Schools programme. Back in 1998, the Government launched its National Grid for Learning (NGfL), a bold programme to change radically the role of ICT in schools.

The programme, which ran until 2002, set out a number of goals and provided more than pound;1 billion of matched funding to achieve them. The goals included developing an NGfL portal that would be a gateway to educational resources on the internet and networks that would connect schools, libraries, colleges and community centres. A variety of portals, websites and online centres were subsequently developed for pupils (Grid Club), parents (Parents Online), teachers (Teachernet, the Virtual Teachers Centre, the National College for School Leadership) and communities (Online Centres, UK Online).

A lot of effort also went into improving the ICT infrastructure in schools; they received generous funding from the Standards Fund in order to achieve this. According to the DfES's latest statistical information, in 1998, the average annual school expenditure on ICT was pound;9,400; by 2002 it was pound;24,800. In the same period, the pupil-to-computer ratio in all schools fell from 13.8 to 8.8. When the NGfL was launched, just over a quarter of all schools were connected to the internet; by the end of last year, almost every school was. Under the NGfL programme, 10 Regional Broadband Consortia (RBC) were set up to provide schools with high-speed connections to the internet, providing faster links and allowing more pupils to access rich multimedia resources.

Another target was to provide ICT training to teachers and pound;180 million from the New Opportunities Fund (NOF) was provided for this. Linked to this was a Computers for Teachers programme that saw thousands of teachers gain personal access to computers. The NGfL was not perfect, but few would deny that the DfES has moved schools' ICT out of the shadows and on to the centre stage (94 per cent of primary school teachers say they now regularly use computers for teaching - the figure for secondary teachers is 57 per cent).

The launch of Curriculum Online marks the next stage of ICT in schools. The NGfL programme has now been superseded by the ICT in Schools Programme, which runs from 2002-2004. The NGfL was mainly about equipping schools with the hardware to use ICT and equipping teachers with the skills and confidence to use ICT in the classroom. The next phase is about using ICT for teaching and learning and this includes providing teachers with the content and resources to allow them to use ICT imaginatively, creatively and effectively - in their classrooms. As Robert Hailand, general manager of Granada Learning, puts it: "There has been an enormous spend on infrastructure and we're not finished yet. But the focus is shifting from things like the computerpupil ratio to 'what are we going to use all this ICT for?'"

If the internet can be considered a vast library of resources, then Curriculum Online is like a giant repository of digital learning content that has been specially selected for teachers. Some of the resources are free, but others are paid for, and to help teachers purchase them, schools have been given electronic learning credits or eLCs. The launch of Curriculum Online complements initiatives like the ICT Advice section on Becta's website. The latter provides help and guidance in selecting ICT hardware, whereas Curriculum Online is about helping teachers find the right content and resources.

The DfES plans to integrate Curriculum Online with other online educational services such as Teachernet and National Curriculum Online - at the Education Show at Birmingham NEC this week, the department is showing a pilot implementation of this integration. The NGfL programme was about putting the building blocks of ICT in place. The arrival of Curriculum Online means that teachers should now get even more out of the vast investment of ICT in schools.

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