The fruit is nearly ripe;Editorial;Opinion

8th January 1999 at 00:00
* The last, limping stages of the Major government, those who knew about technology in education came to a consensus about the way forward. The trouble was, Westminster didn't want to know - it would cost money.Then came the Stevenson Report for the Labour government in waiting and, surprisingly, it wove the critics' observations into something credible- a national strategy for information and communications technology, as Stevenson labelled it. Even more amazing, the Blair Government stumped up pound;1 billion to set up its National Grid for Learning and connect all schools. The former critics were speechless.

The annual BETT technology show at Olympia is the market-place and talking shop for the educational ICT community. Traditionally, government ministers kick off the shindig with announcements about new projects which were funded by end-of-year-money - underspent cash clawed back from government departments. Thankfully, these underspend windfalls have now become the icing rather than the cake.

Last year saw the announcement of the National Grid for Learning. Olympia buzzed with a new optimism that will be amplified this year. The grid is under construction and schools are connecting individually, collectively and as authorities (page 26). The political will cannot be doubted - now the focus is on the priorities.

Number one is training - a massive task. Although pound;230 million is available, there are still doubts about the mechanisms for delivery and quality assurance (page 16). There was talk of having 200 approved training providers for schools to choose from. As there were only 152 applications, the plans are slightly over-optimistic. We can only hope that the Teacher Training Agency listens to its critics, some of whom should be its closest allies.

The keeper of the learning grid is the British Educational Communications and Technology Agency (BECTA), the successor to the ill-starred National Council for Educational Technology (NCET). It is now building alliances in a way that is encouraging. Good appointments have been made and there is optimism that it will succeed where its predecessor was constrained by its masters at the Department for Education and Employment.

There is plenty of goodwill towards BECTA and 'The TES' is pleased to present its chief executive, Owen Lynch, as our speaker at BETT'99 (Thursday, 11am). There is a growing belief that the agency can emerge as an strong, independent body, recognised and respected by the education community. It has to show the kind of openness required to convince people that it can provide the necessary leadership and ability to create a meaningful forum.

Its other important role is as an honest broker in kite-marking companies capable of supplying managed services to schools (page 12-13). The days of teachers fiddling around with complicated school networks instead of doing what they do best - teaching - are, hopefully, numbered. BECTA has to ensure that the companies are kosher and that schools don't leap from the frying pan into the fire.

The net is now closing in on teachers who are not computer-literate. The Government intends to do away with most paper-based communications between schools, colleges, authorities and Whitehall by 2002. And the recent Green paper proposes ICT proficiency tests for trainee teachers before they can qualify.

So it's way beyond time that imaginative schemes were brought in to help teachers have their own computers, a sure-fire way to teach them technology. If other countries can do it, there's no reason it can't be done here.

Finally, the costs of communications still leave a lot to be desired. Few people really believe there is enough competition to drive down prices for high-speed Internet connection. The role of Government and the telecommunications watchdog OFTEL in this area is clearly unfinished.

Right now there is more to celebrate than lament. We have had the honeymoon; this year is the crunch time when the strategy must be enacted. This year's BETT show will break new records - for exhibitors, attendance and sheer positive attitudes. See you there, and if you can't make it, I hope there is enough in these pages to whet your appetite for BETT 2000. That is when we should start to see the first fruits of the National Grid for Learning.

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