Hang ups

16th May 1997 at 01:00
"No" is a handy little word but one which has been sadly underused by the teaching profession. Indeed, in-service training days should be devoted to it, and to the equally useful "nope", "nuh", "no way, Jose", "not on your Nelly, " and "you can not be serious". If teachers had only resorted to these - or those remarkably effective phrases sometimes heard in the playground and on Channel 4 - schools wouldn't now be lumbered with league tables, records of achievement and the rest of that long list of cock-ups that constituted the Conservatives' education policy.

A simple "no" would have proved particularly invaluable to those poor souls who once enjoyed the title of head of computer studies. In the old days, he who was i.c. computers (and it usually was a "he") was nothing less than a high priest of high tech. His colleagues recognised that his subject was A Good Thing, but were quite content for it to remain a mystery to them.

And the head of computer studies might have remained in this blessed state if he'd only known how to say "no". He should have said it when he was offered the flashier title of "IT co-ordinator" and asked to shoulder all the responsibilities that the newly-designated post entailed - including the onerous task of convincing reluctant colleagues that they needed to become computer literate.

It was crucial that he did so: although he still had to carry the can for IT, it was those very colleagues who, in future, would do most of the actual teaching. They, of course, should have said "no" to the ludicrously over-ambitious scheme, adopted by most schools, to teach IT as a cross-curricular subject. Most staff simply didn't have the expertise, the resources or the energy to do the job properly.

If there weren't enough properly trained teachers in a school - and little hope of recruiting more - it should have been obvious that the way to help children to learn about computers was to get computers to do the teaching. This is what has been happening for the past six years in 60 per cent of secondary schools in Holland.

Children log on to a huge database of tutorials, simulations, exercises and tests that give them a thorough grounding in 17 topics that range from "working with Windows" to "computers in daily life". The package, christened Babbage, in memory of the man who invented the computer, has now been translated and adapted for use in British schools.

Babbage is pitched at key stage 3, but would be equally useful for younger pupils - as long as they are capable of coping with the program's extensive use of on-screen text. It must be said that this is one of the few educational programs that doesn't even pretend to be fun to use. It relies, instead, on no-nonsense instruction, free of any extravagant graphics, toe-curling quips or cute sound-effects.

As a consequence, teachers will be relieved to find that it will run just as well on a tired 286 as on the latest multimedia monster PC. Two of the modules are available as demo discs which are being offered to schools free of charge. The complete package will be available in September. Prices haven't been finalised, but the manufacturers say that a site licence for an average school will be about Pounds 650. Unfortunately, that's the sort of price which tends to provoke even the most positive IT co-ordinator into saying "no".

The Babbage Information Desk, Summerfield Publishing, PO Box 16, Evesham, Worcestershire WR11 6WN. Tel:01386 831642

* arnoldevans @easynet.co.uk

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