Extend your reach with ICT

18th September 1998 at 01:00
BECTA's first outside recruit, Niel McLean, signed up with computers as soon as they entered classrooms. He speaks to Jack Kenny.

Many are the teachers who have sat stiffly in audiences, dutifully waiting for the man from the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority (QCA) to give them a talk about using information and communications technology. But they have been pleasantly surprised to see Niel McLean loosen his tie, remove his jacket, wander through the audience, thinking, pausing, talking, explaining as he goes. Best of all, he speaks their language and makes difficult concepts come to life. Niel's communication skills are impressive.

Niel McLean is on the move from the QCA. He is one of the first outside appointments to the British Educational Communications and Technology Agency (BECTA), an organisation with an important role in the Government's plans for its National Grid for Learning. He now heads the schools directorate. Niel has valuable contacts throughout the educational sector and his understanding of educational and ICT issues will be valuable to the new agency.

Born in Chadderton, north Man-chester, and raised in Stockport, Niel quickly learnt about education. "My primary school was a watershed," he says. "It was very traditional - taught me what not to do.

"If you were top of the class, you were in one place, and if you were bottom, you were at the far end. You moved up and down the rows based on the exams. I was fairly quiet so I was comfortably placed in the top quarter."

Niel went on to Stockport School and eventually to Cambridge, where he studied engineering. "It was one of those subjects that you were expected to absorb. I didn't get all that much out of Cambridge. Probably my expectations were too high. There was little discussion, not much space to be yourself in a highly structured course. The most memorable part of my time there was the discussion after hours.

"The primary and the university experience made me think that there must be abetter way.

"Teaching doesn't have to be like that, sitting in rows for lectures, going to tutorials to demonstrate that you'd understood the lectures."

Niel's father was a professional musician who played in Empire theatres across the country. One of the reasons for basing the family in Stockport was its proximity to good rail connections.

"It was interesting. In the summer the whole family would decamp to Blackpool where Dad was playing a summer season," he says. "Eventually he became a peripatetic music teacher, then a full-time teacher in Manchester.

"I was unfortunate in that I hadn't met many good teachers, and it was from him that I learnt it was possible to be a sane human being, a teacher and do something moderately useful. He had a great relationship with the kids that he taught.

"I owe him a great deal, as I do my mother, who taught me about reading and talking and thinking."

ttracted by its problem-solving philosophy, Niel did a postgraduate certificate in education at the National Centre for Schools Technology in Trent Polytechnic, Nottingham. The ideas there were ahead of the times: the key thing was giving students practical problems to solve.

"Previously there was an idea that if you stuffed people full of science, they would emerge as problem-solvers. It doesn't happen like that."

Technology changed his life when he started teaching in Northolt. It was the time of the mammoth RM 380z computer and the school also acquired a BBC computer. Niel became "a propellerhead", the kind of person who was always taking the lid off, writing programs.

From that beginning, he soon recognised the value of networks, such as the Internet, for learning: "Technology extends your reach. Slim Gaillard, the jazz musician, claimed to be born in Cuba. Whenever he was near the sea, he always touched it. He believed touching the sea was like touching home. That's the Internet - technology, extending your reach."

From teaching, Niel went into the local advisory service, then to the School Examinations and Assessment Council, later the School Curriculum and Assessment Authority (SCAA), which eventually metamorphosed into the QCA.

Niel says he learnt a great deal at SCAA; that you have to win the argument and take people with you, and that you cannot compel teachers. "The national curriculum did not happen in the way that it was intended. I learnt the importance of being out, being visible, engaging with the debate. It should be a debate - education is such an important thing that we should be informed by a wide range of thinking," he says.

"Places such as BECTA should challenge the profession. You don't bow to pressure groups. You become a focus for debate by saying: 'We hear what you say, but there are imperatives out there that suggest other ways of thinking. ' " Niel continues:"There is an incredible sense of optimism about ICT. We have so many things in place that it really feels that now is the time to make a difference.

"ICT is good when it is linked to networks such as the Internet. It could really happen over the next two years. If it isn't rolling, it will be going at a speed. The momentum will be there."

As befits someone who is passionate about technology, Niel also uses it in his own time. He uses a synthesiser and sequencer to play and compose music. "It's for sheer pleasure. They enable me to do things musically that would have been unthinkable a few years ago."


1978-85 Teacher, Walford High School, Northolt, Middlesex

1985-92 Advisory teacher for the Technical Vocational Educational Initiative, Ealing, London

1992-93 Technology Officer, School Examination and Assessment Council

1993-97 Professional Officer IT, SCAA

1997-98 ICT Manager, Qualifications and Curriculum Authority

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