Some 700 English schools are to receive a windfall of two top-of-the-range laptop computers. But, asks Merlin John, can these last-minute hand-outs help teachers solve problems of IT literacy?
The Department for Education and Employment is attempting to improve the teaching of information technology in schools by giving teachers access to their own laptop computers. The good news is that the DFEE is investing Pounds 3.5 million in the project; the bad news is that the money has to be spent by April 1 and the top-quality colour laptops will only go to two teachers in each of 700 schools.
The money has to be spent by the beginning of April because it comes from DFEE underspending which must be used in the current financial year, otherwise it is clawed back by the Treasury. Every year DFEE civil servants use this cash to fund school computer projects which are usually announced by senior politicians at the BETT technology show in January.
While these projects are generally welcomed - they're better than nothing - they are also criticised because of the administrative difficulties, inequities and lack of consultation which arise when trying to spend so much money so quickly. They are no substitute for a planned, properly-funded strategy, say advisers. The current laptop scheme is no exception: prospective suppliers were given just two days to express interest and a further five days to deliver submissions.
Another issue is the high-specification of the laptops (which have CD-Rom and options for Internet connection for one year). Advisers point out that more schools could benefit if less expensive machines were chosen.
The potential benefit of laptops for teachers was identified two years ago when a Pounds 2.55 million research project run by the National Council for Educational Technology found that "teachers who had portable computers were more confident and effective when teaching information technology".
A scheme of this kind was also one of the priorities identified for the Department for Education and Employment by the IT advisers' and inspectors' association, NAACE. "NAACE especially commends the principle of ensuring that residues from budgets within the DFEE are deployed to improve the environment in which learning can take place in schools," says Doug Masterton, the organisation's vice-chair.
However, NAACE has called for urgent details on how the schools which are to receive the laptops will be selected. "In the context of the total of some 30,000 schools in England, the scheme can only make a very limited contribution to the aim of developing IT competence and usage by all teachers," says Masterton.
The other IT advisers' association, ACITT, also gave the scheme a qualified welcome. "This is a long overdue initiative, one which ACITT has been arguing for over the past two years," says its chair, Martin Kilkie. "Before we can raise the IT literacy of pupils we need to raise teachers' own levels, and as anyone who uses IT will tell you, having access is the major part of the battle . . . Perhaps the Government will look into tax deductible status for this tool which is now an essential part of the armoury of teachers."
The NCET has been asked to evaluate the current scheme as teachers' access to computers is seen by many as the key issue.
One way forward is to help teachers buy their own machines, according to the Scottish Council for Educational Technology. Last year SCET ran an interest-free scheme to help Scottish teachers buy multimedia Apple Mac computers. They paid Pounds 200 up front followed by 24 monthly payments of Pounds 46.60 to get an extremely user-friendly Apple Performa 630 computer with built-in CD-Rom, eight CDs, software and one year's on-site maintenance.
SCET only expected to sell a few hundred machines but it was overwhelmed. Teachers, mostly those in primary schools, bought 1,700.
While this initial scheme may not have gone very far in achieving universal IT literacy in a country with more than 40,000 teachers, it does indicate teachers' willingness to make their own commitment.
SCET chief executive Nigel Paine says: "The impact of enthusiastic computer-literate teachers on the IT development in these schools has been exceptionally encouraging and much good classroom activity has emerged as a direct result of this initiative." SCET is understood to be considering similar deals in future.
In contrast, concern is being expressed privately that the DFEE laptop scheme is too small and the high specifications have narrowed its spread. Also, its research findings are unlikely to add much to those from the last project two years ago.
Perhaps it's time the civil servants talked to teachers. As one education computer vendor in north London said this week: "The teachers who come here don't want laptops. They want a nice colour desktop machine that can handle CD-Rom."
More information from NCET, Milburn Hill Road, Science Park, Coventry CV4 7JJ. Tel: 01203 416994.
* The Welsh Office's Pounds 3 million plan to provide more than 1,700 primaries with multimedia or portable computers has caused controversy because the Office awarded 93 per cent of the contract to one company.
Research Machines will be providing the multimedia PC systems that most schools opted for, effectively ignoring the wishes of others that wanted Acorn or Apple equipment, despite the Government's promises that schools could make their own choices. The other 7 per cent will get laptop computers or Acorn Pocket Books.