Failure simply isn't an option;Education;Editorial

15th May 1998 at 01:00
It has been hard to get excited about the Millennium Dome at Greenwich - unless you're Peter Mandelson MP, or work for him that is. A rough poll of colleagues prompted fairly typical responses: folly; white elephant; waste of money; nothing to put in it; only temporary anyway; hard to get to. The more positive ones compare it with the Eiffel Tower.

But the hype is already plentiful and there's a lot to live up to, particularly when the Prime Minister describes it as "the most exciting thing to happen anywhere in the world in the Year 2000". (The Greenwich website says the millennium actually starts on January 1, 2001, but the computers start crashing on January 1, 2000.) With a budget of pound;758 million, a figure you suspect will reach pound;1 billion by the time it opens, there is an awful lot riding on the Dome. So much, in fact, that it cannot be allowed to fail.

That's why the line taken by the British Educational Suppliers Association (see pages 4-5) is the one that makes most sense: the arguments are over and it's definitely going to happen, so the Dome's Learn Zone should have the best show of educational technology possible.

Despite the cynicism surrounding it, the Dome is already a catalyst for educational technology. Tesco's SchoolNet 2000 is significant. Of course, it is good marketing and increases Tesco's appeal, but it is a solid investment that should galvanise schools into stimulating projects, as well as help create a treasure of useful information on the World Wide Web and for the Dome. (The July 10 issue of Online will carry a full report on the project.) The high profile, extra funding, and the accessibility of Internet technology could help SchoolNet 2000 achieve the picture of British life that the Domesday project was trying for in the Eighties.

The grand plan to train all British teachers in information and communicationstechnology (ICT) by the year 2002 is also getting under way. It is being funded by pound;230 million of Lottery profits (see pages 12-13) and is surrounded by the same kind of built-in "mustn't fail" aura as the Dome.

The first stage is already starting - assessing teachers' training needs for ICT. The general feeling is that teachers are poorly equipped and trained for using ICT in the curriculum, but no one is really sure of the overall picture. That's why the work of the Teacher Training Agency is absolutely crucial. If they don't get the analysis of teachers' training needs broadly right, then that pound;230 million would have more profitably been used on Lottery tickets.

Alan Kay, a guru of educationaltechnology, is wary of mass training of teachers. He draws an analogy with teaching music. He would much rather have a number of inspirational music teachers than every teacher being able to play "Chopsticks". He has a point.

Before the general election, the educational technology scene was stagnating. There was a desperate need of a strategy supported by funding. Well now we have one, and it's ambitious and brave. But there's always the danger of failure when you take brave steps.

The Teacher Training Agency is stillrelatively young and isn't particularly renowned for its expertise on ICT. And the grand plan also depends on the efficiency of its collaborators at the Department for Education and Employment, the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority and the British Educational and Communications Technology Agency .

BECTA is going through a painful restructuring, which has slowed developments with the National Grid for Learning, so fingers are crossed for the organisation re-emerging strong and fit for the autumn term.

While there's no doubting the Government's conviction in getting schools technology moving, there are worries about how it can be achieved. It's good to have grand plans, but failure would be disastrous.

In the Eighties, the Government gave schools modems but no support, so it became known as "the modems in cupboards" scheme. By comparison, the scale of current investments is so large that anything less than success will be a disaster - this chance will not come again. Is this the right model? Or should every teacher master ICT as a basic skill, like reading and units, just as every teacher should be a teacher of English

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