Hang ups

7th June 1996 at 01:00
Last week I wrote about a conversation I had in a pub, and this week, at the risk of having the column re-named Booze ups, it's going to be the same again all round. I make no apologies for this. I used to put my faith in government reports and statistics, but have come to realise that you can learn far more about IT in schools over a fact-finding pint or three. The only problem is remembering it the next morning.

This week's drinking companion (four pints and a packet of ready-salted) is a secondary school teacher who after a decade of assiduously ignoring the hype and the hullabaloo, has suddenly seen the light. He has bought a computer, reads the glossy mags, mugged up on Rams, Roms and the rest of the gobbledygook and, given half a chance, will cut short pub discussions on the European Championship or what to do about carrot fly in order to debate the role of IT in education.

Eager to catch up on what's been going on, he asks the obvious questions - and is appalled to find that there are no obvious answers. For instance: what is the best operating system? He understands that half the authorities plumped for PCs, while the other half put their money on Acorn. But who got it right? He doesn't want to hear the usual slanging match, he wants hard facts: statistics on how well children have performed on each system.

He wants to see bench tests, and detailed technical comparisons. Then he wants "Someone" in authority to pass judgement and to decree what hardware and software every pupil must use. It's hardly in the spirit of local management but it would prevent schools from buying an expensive menagerie of white elephants.

He also wants this Someone to tackle the question of how the teaching of IT should be organised. If it's important enough to be included in the national curriculum, Someone should spell out not only what children should be learning, but also exactly how it should be taught and how much time should be devoted to it. There would be uproar if pupils weren't given long enough for English or maths - why doesn't the same apply to IT? And when Someone is laying down the law on this, he or she ought to state unequivocally whether IT should be taught "across the curriculum" or as a subject in its own right.

The National Council for Educational Technology (NCET) is the quango responsible for promoting the use of computers in schools. In its latest publication, Delivering Capability in IT, it recognised "that there are common issues and challenges that all schools need to face", but it shies away from spelling out how teachers should be coping with them. "What can be said for certain is that there is no right way to organise the delivery of IT. What is successful in one school can fail in another." If the NCET's assorted gurus can't come up with an answer, there isn't much hope for the hard-pressed IT co-ordinator who also has to solve the far more immediate problem of why the network goes down every time someone tries to use the printer.

In reality, of course, these gurus - everyone a Someone - do have all the answers. What they don't have is the authority to insist that, instead of going their own sweet - and often misguided - way, schools should be obliged to do exactly what they are told. There might be drawbacks to giving a Someone such powers, but it would, at least, mean that every school would operate the same IT policy. There would be no need to discuss the matter any further. In the pub, we could turn our minds again to the far weightier problems posed by carrot fly and the England squad.


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