The future is on the coffee table;Watershed

12th February 1999 at 00:00
The way her children treated the first laptop she brought home gave Mary Marsh a vision of the possible. She told Chris Johnston why'

Mary Marsh is no stranger to media attention. Search for her name in the national newspaper database at The TES and more than 40 articles pop up. In April 1995, several claimed that she would "possibly be the country's highest-paid teacher" when she became head of Holland Park School in west London. Yet as she pointed out, "there are plenty of salaries higher than mine that are not published".

However, Marsh cannot be in education for the money - if that were the case, she would not have spent most of the summer holidays at school overseeing the installation of a Windows NT network.

The experience was far from her first involvement with technology. She has been interested in using computers since becoming a deputy head in 1980 at St Christopher, an all-age independent school in Letchworth, Hertfordshire.

The arrival of the first BBC computers at the school was the first of several moments in her career when Marsh realised the importance of computers in education. It soon became clear that she would need to know how to use a computer to do her job. That Christmas, she took one home to learn how to type, but was soon using it for word processing and devising timetables.

St Christopher school became part of a pioneering "learning community" driven by information technology, as one of the schools in the Education 2000 project that began in Hertfordshire. In 1985, it installed a Nimbus-based network. Marsh says it quickly demonstrated that "you only become ICT-literate when you have the facility available to you when and where you need it".

She recalls lugging a borrowed school computer home on weekends and holidays for several years before she eventually graduated to a laptop. She says the initial reaction of her children wasanother Eureka moment, because itput computers in a very different light.

"They put it on the coffee table in the sitting room, which completely threw me. I would have put it on the dining table or my desk, but they saw it as being portable. The whole power of portability suddenly hit me very forcibly."

Marsh became a head in 1990 bymoving to Queens' School in Bushey, Herts, which under her leadership in 1993 installed a school-wide curriculum network linked by fibre-optic cable. The following year a multimedia learning centre was ready.

As a head with a strong interest in information technology in education, it is perhaps no surprise that Marsh has advised several government agencies. After addressing the NAACE (computer advisers') conference in 1992, Marsh was asked to join the IT working group of Sir Ron Dearing's curriculum review.

She believes it established the principle that information and communications technology should be used across all subject areas, a commitment that was absent from the national curriculum. "Where we went wrong was that wedidn't have any kind of proper programme to ensure that all teachers became ICT literate," Marsh recalls.

She has always been interested in the ways ICT can be used to run schools more efficiently. She completed an MBA at the London Business School in the late Eighties and advised the then National Council for Educational Technology, the body that preceded BECTA, on management issues, before being appointed to its board in June 1996. Becoming the teacher representative on the telecommunications watchdog Oftel's education task force then followed.

espite the Government's commitment to ICT in education through initiatives such as the National Grid for Learning, schools where the headteacher is fully behind the use of computers still seem to be ahead of the pack.

Marsh concurs: "The senior management team needs to have a powerful voice who shows belief in ICT, will champion it and go through the pain barrier, which means giving a lot of time. You've got to have real commitment."

Training teachers to use ICT well is an issue clearly close to her heart. In her view, the lack of training to date is partly responsible for the failure of the nation's investment in ICT to produce the expected benefits. "You've got to provide support and ensure teachers are trained - not just once, but constantly."

Marsh says she has realised that not only does her school need a network administrator, but also someone to train the teachers using it.

Secondary schools could train people to perform such a role, she feels. The ideal would be to reach the point where Holland Park trains a pool of technicians to help other schools in the borough. A technician lured away to industry could be replaced with a new recruit easily.

In the meantime, her goals are ensuring that the school's systems work reliably and that staff use them well, both for administration and teaching She would like to be involved in a research project that examines how ICT can be used to change the way schools operate. "We haven't re-engineered - we've bolted the IT into the structure that was there before. In every other walk of life, IT has led to a different way of operating things. It hasn't in education yet."


1968 BSc Nottingham University 1968-71 Geography teacher and head of department (two schools) 1971-79 Full-time mother and part-time ESL teacher in Barking 1980 Deputy head, St Christopher School, Letchworth 1985 - Education 2000 project 1987-89 MBA at London Business School 1990 Head, Queen's School, Watford 1994 First school-based multimedia learning centre 1995 Head, Holland Park School 1996 Council member, NCET 1998 Board member, BECTA Member, secondary panel, QCA national curriculum review

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