Exchange and heart

5th September 1997 at 01:00
IT experts who lost their job with the demise of ILEA were able to turn their knowledge to good account. Sally McKeown reports

How many daggers do you need to stage a production of Macbeth? What other props will you have to hire? How many tickets will you need to sell to break even? In the heady days of the Inner London Educational Computing Centre, better known as ILECC, the walls were lined with 101 really good ideas for using software to support the national curriculum.

But Mrs Thatcher decreed that the Greater London Council, and eventually ILECC's parent, the Inner London Education Authority, should be disbanded. David Mason of the IT Learning Exchange says: "The Tories abolished ILECC but they couldn't abolish the need for it."

After the demise of ILECC, it seemed likely that staff would be dispersed. Instead, David Mason, Paul Milnes, Steve Oram, Ian Sillett and Les Squirrell, formerly of ILECC, have a new identity. They are now collectively known as the IT Learning Exchange at the University of North London in Holloway Road. Not only do they have jobs helping teachers but also they have scooped the IT Services to Education awards for the past two years at the BETT educational technology show.

What turned a seeming disaster into such a success? "Co-operation, collaboration and a brilliant accountant," says Steve Oram. Steve is the co-ordinator of the IT Learning Exchange but his title belies the democratic structure of a set-up where everyone has an equal voice and earns the same salary.

The service provided is wide ranging. They run a subscription helpline, provide technical support and in-service training in schools, run courses in their own training suite and produce a small amount of software and a range of publications. On the back of the success of their work in schools, they have also developed training materials for the House of Commons library, a summer school for American teachers and a technical support programme for the Diplomatic Service, Language in the Foreign Office.

As this support service goes from strength to strength, what lessons can be learnt by other providers? Perhaps the first is that all their achievements came out of a particular combination of circumstances: they were a highly successful team who all lost their jobs at the same time and moved on as a group. Only now are they extending operations and taking on additional staff. They were also exceptionally lucky to find an organisation that wanted to adopt them and had enough faith to take them on as salaried staff. This support was crucial to their success. Finally, they had that particular blend of passion and professionalism that characterised the best of ILECC.

"There was an inevitable period of mourning after the closure of ILECC. It was very difficult to move on," says Steve Oram. "In terms of the time and energy needed to re-establish ourselves, it would be fair to say that the first year was hell, the second was purgatory and the third year was bearable.

"It would not have been possible without the support and financial backing of the university. Perhaps the fact that we are now based in a university department has given us a certain kudos which has helped us to develop some of our newer areas of work."

However, virtue is not its own reward and the University of North London is not a philanthropic organisation. It was unusually far-sighted and was quick to spot the benefits of underwriting the IT Learning Exchange. The Exchange is in business on a non-profit-making basis but has to recover all its costs.

There is an impeccable business logic behind the relationship. The University of North London is a neighbourhood university with 70 per cent of its students coming from the former ILEA area. The School of Education provides training and support for teachers throughout their working lives. There was already a strong tradition of developing IT competencies and the presence of the IT Learning Exchange put the icing on the cake.

Greg Condry, dean of humanities and teacher education at the University of North London says: "We have invested in the IT Learning Exchange because it enables us to work in the community and the investment is beginning to pay off in terms of income generation."

Plans suggest that the team will not be resting on their laurels. They are now a Beta (test) site for publishers Dorling Kindersley and will be evaluating new materials with a group of schools. David Mason is developing a history project where pupils will explore the lives of men, women and children in Victorian Britain. This will include Information Workshop files with data from the 1891 census, Colour Magic files, photographs of Victorian homes and Internet activities based on researching Sainsbury, John Lewis and other doyens of the Victorian retail trade.

In keeping with its name, the IT Learning Exchange plans to share its work with others. It is developing materials with Kentish Town Church of England School, Primrose Hill School and Rhyl School in Camden. It hopes that eventually there will be e-mail and Web links with Salford Education IT Centre and sites in New York and Queensland, Australia.

As a National Council for Educational Technology LinkIT centre, it is part of a national network of IT support, and has developed some innovative in-service training courses for classroom assistants which have been oversubscribed in Lambeth, Camden and in their own training facility. Classroom assistants are often the first port of call for a child who is having problems with printing a page, yet they are last in the queue when it comes to IT training.

"They are wonderful role models for the pupils," says David Mason. "They are not teachers or IT professionals but people from the neighbourhood who have got to grips with technology."

While other organisations have become increasingly "blue skies", the IT Learning Exchange is firmly rooted in the practicalities of what a teacher will be doing at 10.30 on Thursday morning. The future may bring newer and faster machines, cheaper and more robust laptops or more sophisticated broadband technologies but at the heart of all new developments there will be the teacher.

"From our point of view," says Steve Oram, "it would be ideal if in five years' time all teachers knew what the national curriculum required of them and were confident that they could deliver it. We would like to play our part in making that happen."

The IT Learning Exchange, School of Education, University of North London, 166-220 Holloway Road, London N7 8DB. Tel: 0171 753 5092. E-mail: itle@unl.

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