Here we come, ready or not

13th October 2000 at 01:00
With little more than one year to go before the Government's deadline day for the National Grid For Learning in 2002, how far have we come and where do we need to speed things up a bit? George Cole takes a look at the advances and facts and figures.

And now we are three. In 1997, the Government launched the National Grid for Learning (NGFL) with a target of connecting every school to the Internet by 2002. Hundreds of millions of pounds of match-funding have been poured into the project, and the NGFL promises to have a seismic effect on information and communications technology (ICT) in schools and in the wider community. At least that is what it says on the label.

With the NGFL close to the Government's target completion date, now is a good time to assess how the various elements of the project are stacking up. The simplest element - connection to the Internet - appears to be going well. Last month, the Department for Education and Employment (DFEE) released statistics which showed that 86 per cent of primary schools, 92 per cent of special schools and almost all secondary schools (98 per cent) in England were connected to the Internet. This is a tremendous achievement, especially when you consider that two years ago, fewer than one in five primary schools were connected. In Scotland, the figures are 81 per cent for primary schools and 100 per cent for secondary schools.

But critics argue that there are lies, damned lies and ICT statistics. What's more important is the quality rather than the quantity of connections. A school with a single telephone modem connection to the Internet may be online, but it is hardly going to make a great impact on the school's use of ICT. Jill Day, a committee member of NAACE, the IT advisers' association, says: "We need to be talking about connection to the classroom. It's about getting access to all pupils rather than just all schools." Most schools use an ISDN digital telephone connection, but many believe that the NGFL should be based on faster broadband technology (see Comment, page 22).

But the debate is not just about the technology. As Adrian Carey, director of educational services at the educational Internet company Edex, puts it:

"The issue is not about connectivity, but about communication and using ICT, rather than just being connected to the Web."

Others wonder whether a NGFL is actually being created. Alan Teece, director of Granada Online Learning, was one of the members of the ICL team that coined the term NGFL more than five years ago: "When we went to the Government with our idea for an NGFL, we said it should be a national infrastructure like the railways or the electricity grid. But what you've got today is a patchwork quilt, with some schools and LEAs having a good quality garment but, for others, it's rather threadbare."

The result, says Teece, is an inconsistent approach to the development of the learning grid, and the danger is that children in areas where progress is slow will miss out on valuable ICT skills and experiences. Peter Stibbons, managing director of Anglia Multimedia, says: "Conceptually, it's still not clear what the NGFL actually is." What is clear is that the development of the grid has depended on the interpretation, enthusiasm and commitment of schools and LEAs. At the school level, the support of senior management has been critical, and at the LEA level, the vision, plus the organisational and management skills of advisers and administrators, have played a vital role in determining the level of resources committed to the NGFL.

In some areas, such as Birmingham, Kent and Staffordshire, impressive local and regional networks have been created, linking schools, LEAs and the wider community. But in other areas, some schools are still struggling with a simple dial-up Internet connection. In fairness to the stragglers, there are many demands made on schools and LEAs these days, such as numeracy and literacy targets.

The trend towards devolving power down to the school level has made it harder for LEAs to organise local and regional initiatives. And while the examination and assessment system continues to shun ICT, is it any wonder that educators may prefer to invest their over-stretched resources on improving examination results and league table positions rather than worrying about whether their school is using the NGFL to its best advantage?

The success of the NGFL relies on teachers having the confidence in using ICT and knowing when to and how to use it in the classroom. The aim of the pound;230 New Opportunity Fund (NOF) supported programme managed by the Teacher Training Agency (TTA) is to improve teachers' ICT skills. The TTA says about one third of teachers have signed up for the programme. What is more, a survey conducted by British Educational Suppliers Association (BESA) found that only 45 per cent of teachers felt confident in using ICT, so there is clearly a lot of work to be done.

But having teachers trained in using ICT is no good if they don't have the resources or the opportunities to use their new-found skills. The success of the computers for teachers scheme shows there is a hunger from many teachers to use ICT, but too many of them are being frustrated by a lack of ICT resources in the classroom.

And the NGFL is no good if it has no compelling content. Although 15 per cent of the Standards funding has been set aside to buy content, this has been widely interpreted by some schools and authorities to include, for example, computer operating software. Companies such as RM, Sherston, Anglia Multimedia and AVP have put a lot of good content online and last month Storm Educational Software showed that it isn't just the big players who are going online.

Storm has re-written its popular Smudge the Spaniel software to run under Web browser software like Explorer and Navigator. Schools can use the software on their network or intranet. They can also try the software by going to Storm's website. Purchased software can be posted on disk or delivered online: "It's a good system for schools because, by breaking the software down into modules, schools can purchase the activities they want," says Peter Miles, a company partner.

Another potential source of good content are public bodies such as galleries, libraries and museums, and Dave Hassell, head of curriculum and innovation development at the British Educational Communications and Technology Agency (BECTA), says his organisation is talking to these bodies in an effort to put more content on the NGFL.

The NGFL should be about communication, but in England, the NGFL is still well short of achieving the aim of giving 75 per cent of teachers and 50 per cent of pupils email addresses. In Scotland, 79 per cent of secondary staff and 66 per cent of secondary pupils have email access, and the figures for primary schools are 51 per cent and 29 per cent respectively. The NGFL has proved to be a very useful communication tool for some parties, such as special educational needs co-ordinators who have used online facilities such as email and chat to keep in touch and share ideas.

But one of the focal points of the NGFL, the Virtual Teachers Centre, managed by BECTA, has been a disappointment. Although it has been designed to encourage teachers to share things such as ideas, information and lesson plans, a thriving online educational community has yet to emerge. A contributory database for teachers to share ideas and resources, for example, has attracted few messages.

But as BECTA points out, the VTC is a two-way street and will only thrive if teachers are prepared to be givers as well as takers: "If everyone only put one thing on the VTC, we would have thousands of ideas," says Dave Hassell. BECTA is redesigning the VTC, with a relaunch planned for the next BETT show in January 2001. A new feature will allow teachers to enter information about their needs and interests (such as their subject area) so that relevant information can be targeted at them. There are also plans to provide information about Web links rather than simply giving teachers a list of Web addresses.

There are many examples of where the NGFL has played a positive role in schools, but these tend to be in the schools that are well-resourced andor innovative. Adrian Carey says: "I'm more interested in what's happening in the average school and what the average teacher is doing rather than the very good." The signs are that in some schools, the NGFL has had a significant effect on ICT and learning, but in many schools its impact is still minimal.

The NGFL programme has been a driving force in educational ICT, and thousands of pupils have benefited from the initiative. But in many areas, such as content, teacher training, broadband access, community access, homeschool links, online learning and communication, it has some way to go. The danger for education is that when the goal of connecting every school to the Internet is achieved, the Government may feel that its work is done. For many thousands of schools, the journey will have only just begun.

George Cole is a freelance journalist and a former teacher



Virtual Teachers Centre

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