The running-down of IT support services has been one of the strangest products of a government that otherwise has a good record in supporting IT in the classroom.
The UK may well be a world leader in the amount of hardware in classrooms, but there's still a serious problem - two-thirds of secondary teachers make no use of IT as a regular part of their teaching. This is not really surprising when you consider that IT support available to teachers in the classroom has declined dramatically from its peak in 198889. And it is likely to be diluted even further when the effects of the latest round of local government reorganisation are felt.
The success of the Grants for Education Support and Training (GEST), which targeted money on to IT, was followed inexplicably by reduced funding. The Government will, of course, deny all responsibility, claiming that all decisions on funding are now made locally, as indeed they are. But they were made only after local authority accountants had read the obvious signs that IT was less of a priority. And schools have shown a reluctance to spend on IT support not because it isn't valued but because there are so many other calls on their limited budgets.
Another negative message comes from the national curriculum. The weak injunction, "Pupils should be given opportunities, where appropriate, to develop and apply their information technology capability in their study of . . ." at the beginning of each of the curriculum documents has done nothing to bolster IT in the curriculum. Teachers under pressure are pragmatists. GCSE results count as never before, but for post-GCSE there is no reason why any teacher should use IT, and few do.
The need for training and support is as urgent as ever. Many newly-qualified teachers have had little training on their courses. They need support and many of them were trained in schools where IT was a low priority. Their personal IT skills might be a little higher than they were a few years ago but their understanding of how to incorporate IT into their teaching strategies is likely to be rudimentary. Continuing professional development is largely a fantasy - most teachers get only one day a year if they are lucky. Doug Masterton, chair of the National Association of Advisers for Computers in Education, says: "There have been some casualties and the support network is frail." He believes that a large number of centres are only just managing to survive, with greatly reduced staffing in some cases.
"Great damage has been done through delegation of funding. Many schools now have the opportunity not to buy into a service thinking they do not need support. It is very difficult for schools to see subscription to a centre as an insurance for back-up when they need it. Many schools are not yet fully attuned to the level of fees needed to ensure viability of events."
The threat to IT centres is very real. Humberside's HUMMEC centre has already gone and with it most of the fine work that it did for the Apple Macintosh community. Warwickshire was rumoured to have dispensed with its IT service. True, the IT organisation called WECC (Warwickshire Education Computing Centre) has gone, but the staff have been integrated into the main advisory service and the county has come up with a scheme to offer interest-free loans to primary and secondary schools to update their equipment.
The National Council for Education Technology has recognised the seriousness of the situation and is preparing a report, Developing Local Support Arrangements for the Effective Use of IT. The paper looks at the need for partnership between "all types of local and national support providers. This will improve the services available to schools by increasing quality and decreasing cost. Making services more attractive to schools will in turn lead to greater demand and therefore to a more viable local support network. " It is probably easier to analyse the problem than to discover solutions.
One crucial point that comes out of the NCET's work is that without a strong national support network it will be very difficult to implement any national strategy for information technology. What national strategy? Perhaps that is where it should all start - with a national strategy.