East End girl's climb to the top

10th July 1998 at 01:00
She started as a helper at her children's primary school, but now Eileen Devonshire advises software developers. She talks to Chris Abbott

Ten years ago, Eileen Devonshire was helping out at a school in London's East End, hearing pupils read or working with them on a computer. Little did she think that she would, within a few years, be a leading figure in the British software industry. Eileen is now assistant chief executive of the British Educational Suppliers Association (BESA), and appreciates the importance of her experience of a Tower Hamlets primary school.

Eileen started helping as a parent at the school her children attended. "I volunteered to help in the library and quite liked the idea of being with young children. I stayed five years, and it wasn't like anything I had done before. My passion has always been children."

Computers soon became part of Eileen's job. "We were using the Granny's Garden program a lot at that time: we turned whole classrooms into Granny's Garden. I thought how lucky my children were to be in a school which was doing this.

"We had four computers in the school - a lot for those days - but, apart from Granny's Garden, we only seemed to have games programs. I learnt a lot from that experience."

The annual BETT educational technology shows had already started when Eileen joined BESA, and she now chairs the steering groups for BETT, as well as for the more recent annual Education Shows.

When local management of schools was introduced, BESA had to try to re-organise itself for this dramatic change to the market and Dominic Savage, its chief executive, saw opportunities for his members .

"He asked around for a good organiser," says Eileen, "and he explained to me that the association's customers would now be more than 30,000 schools rather than just over 100 local authorities."

Eileen joined the association and it was decided she would take on the information and communications technology aspects of the work. "It just grew from there, and it's never been dull."

Many software producers know her very well - they meet regularly at BESA, which hosts the Educational Software Publishers' Association (ESPA). Eileen has been their main contact for many years, though some of her work is now being passed to newer staff members.

"We also support our hardware members, of course, and we have been closely involved with schemes like UK NetYear and the Quality Information Technology Training (QITT) scheme for local support."

Eileen tries to help members understand and take advantage of the opportunities government initiatives offer. She also works with educational associations for consultants, advisers and ICT co-ordinators such as ACITT and NAACE. Reading is important too - Eileen estimates she reads through a six-inch pile of reports every two to three days.

More recently, software evaluation has been a main focus for her work:

"It's taken a long time to deal with inefficient evaluation initiatives. Schemes like the Teachers Evaluating Educational Multimedia (TEEM) initiative are showing the way forward."

But Eileen knows who must always be kept in mind. "Teachers are our first point of concern. This makes us different from other trade associations. I visit more schools than companies."

In a typical week, she might attend a company roadshow, sit on a Department for Education and Employment liaison group, discuss marketing with companies and work on the BETT show - a year-long task. Conferences are important too, as is liaison with government departments, especially the DFEE and the Department for Trade and Industry.

AS for the future, Eileen hopes that BESA will still be at the forefront of developments. "It was exciting to work with the British Computer Society on a recent document, 2000 and Beyond: A School Odyssey, and I would like to see BESA continue to consider the impact of change on learning resources. We need to maintain our existing services and make good use of new opportunities - and, with only nine staff, that's difficult."

It's an incredible change of career for someone who describes herself as "an East End girl". And the changes haven't finished yet. "My personal ambition is to enlighten as many people as possible about the possibilities of ICT.

"We must also define and refine what it is that professional software publishers can offer. And I'd like to have more time to brainstorm with the people I enjoy collaborating with. I'll always want to work alongside education."

Wherever Eileen finds herself in 10 years' time, whether it be a classroom, a boardroom, or even at a computer terminal, it is clear her priorities will remain the same: children and the learning experiences they are offered.

2000 and Beyond: A School Odyssey, Pounds 8 from the British Computer Society, 1 Sanford Street, Swindon SN1 1HJ, 01793 417417. Website: www.bcs.org.uke-mail: bcshq@hq.bcs.org.uk

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