Hang ups

11th July 1997 at 01:00
One of my regular correspondents wants me to rail on his behalf against the Neanderthal short-sightedness of the parent teacher association at the secondary school where he teaches. It had half-promised - in the way PTAs do - to raise funds for a batch of new multimedia machines. But it has now announced it is to devote its annual output of blood sweat and tears to buying a second school minibus.

I'm afraid to say - especially on a page devoted to the wonders of new technology - that the PTA has probably come to the right decision.

There is much to be said in favour of a minibus. Unlike a PC, most kids won't already have the latest model in their bedrooms. A minibus won't become obsolete within weeks of arriving in school. It won't need a fortune spent on suitable software before it can serve any useful purpose. And most staff will be capable of using it efficiently without needing lengthy training sessions or having to spend a weekend with a manual.

A nice school in a nice area can never have too many minibuses - but too many of them have too many computers. In the old days, such schools used to encourage sporting prowess to collect silver for the trophy cabinet with which they could then impress visiting dignitaries. Today, they collect computers. "And in this room, Alderman, another eight - count 'em - eight Pentiums, two laser printers, a colour scanner and a thingy with a little light on the front that blinks rather fetchingly. No, we don't know what it is, but I can assure you it cost a fortune."

I suspect that in many secondary classrooms, the computer is more an ornament than a teaching aid. Throughout the day, it is rarely called upon to do more than run a flashy screen saver. It's rather like having a minibus that never leaves the garage - except that a computer doesn't have the equivalent of an odometer - so no one ever finds out.

Of course, it's not like that in most primary schools - especially those on the wrong side of town, where children are far less likely to have a computer of their own. Here they count themselves lucky if their classroom can boast as much as a tired 286 or a clapped-out Acorn. The machine remains in constant use from long before morning registration until the cleaning lady arrives at the end of the school day and insists it's switched off so she can use the electric socket for her Hoover.

The PTA in one of these disadvantaged schools can't offer much help. Parents can't be expected to finance the IT strand of the national curriculum when they have difficulty raising funds for the next packet of fish fingers. One teacher told me her parents can't even take advantage of Tesco's admirable Computers for Schools scheme because they have to rely exclusively on the corner shop. To shop in an out-of-town supermarket requires the luxury of a car, and enough ready cash to make the journey worthwhile. You try telling the person at the checkout that you'll pay the moment your giro arrives.

Chancellor Gordon Brown, it's true, is going to invest some serious money in education. But it will be too late for this generation of bright juniors who want to get down to some serious IT - now.

The only solution, then, is for local authorities to undertake a judicious redistribution of resources. It's a simple matter of transferring the computers from the schools where their use is purely ornamental to those that really need them.

I know it's not easy to shift hundredweights of hardware from one end of town to the other. But that's where a second minibus will really come in handy.


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