How to get the IT factor

28th June 1996 at 01:00
Gerald Haigh on the feared call from the OFSTED inspectors - and developing the technology to survive their visit

The team from the Office for Standards in Education arrives. One member goes off to look at information technology. Finding a child working on a computer in the corridor, she looks closely and finds that he is laboriously copying a finished piece of handwritten work on to a word processor.

"I've finished my story, so Miss said I could do it on the computer," says the child. The inspector later asks the teacher how this activity fits into either the English or the IT schemes of work. The teacher is not sure.

Heads and governors, haunted by this sort of scenario, probably worry at least as much about standards in IT as in any other subject. A feeling that the confidence of teachers is patchy; doubts about the exact role of the IT co-ordinator - all are exacerbated by the possibility that the senior management team itself may not have enough IT expertise to do a good monitoring job.

However, a background chat to people in OFSTED itself, a look at some of the relevant documents and a talk to some local advisers convinced me that there are some general principles that the least IT-literate senior teacher ought to be able to bear in mind as OFSTED-time approaches.

To begin with, the fundamental rule of preparing for OFSTED - that what goes on in the classroom matters more than the written policy - applies just as much to IT as it does to everything else. So it is important to make sure that whatever is written down will stand up robustly when an inspector looks at pupils' work and questions teachers and pupils.

A particular issue which has to be clarified is the extent to which responsibility for teaching the skills is divided between the IT specialist and the subject or classroom teacher. After all, if pupils are going to use a word processor in English lessons, then the English teacher has some responsibility for showing them what to do.

Typically, a secondary school will say that the IT department will teach the technicalities - how to select the appropriate software, how to get it up and running and how to make it do whatever is necessary. The subject teacher will show the pupil how to apply the package to drafting, revision and creating the final product. All of this makes sense on paper. If it is to stand up to inspection, though, there has to be good co-ordination between departments, because there may be overlaps, where the same thing is covered twice, and gaps, where everyone thinks someone else has covered a topic.

This is particularly difficult in the secondary school, where the culture of the autonomous subject department is very strong. It follows that a secondary IT specialist who not only teaches IT but reaches into classroom practice in virtually every department, must have excellent inter-personal skills and good management support if the school is to demonstrate to an inspector that there is real coherence in the use of IT across the curriculum.

A primary school, on the other hand, may decide that there will be no specialist IT lessons, but that the requirements will be covered entirely through other curriculum subjects, with the co-ordinator giving advice and support. The challenge here is posed by the huge unevenness of confidence from teacher to teacher. Very commonly, of two parallel primary classes, one will be well ahead of the curriculum in IT, while the other has hardly made a start.

A head may not notice this, or may have other priorities, but an OFSTED team will certainly bring it to light. Inspectors will not look for one right answer to any of these problems, but will be concerned that they are recognised both by policy and practice.

The head's job is to sit down with the IT teacher and go through the curriculum document, making sure that the specialist knows whether and how the skills are being taught. Equally important, the head needs to know how the IT teacher is monitoring progress and the quality of learning.

Important in this regard is the question of progression. Inspectors find that even in schools with lots of IT going on, there may not be a clear progression over time - skills built on previous knowledge; work becoming broader in scope and more demanding in a planned and observable way.

Related to this is the question of appropriate use of IT. Where, for example, a pupil is working away on a computer at the side of the classroom, an inspector would want evidence that the activity was promoting learning either in IT, or in the subject being studied, or both. As in the example at the beginning of this article, it can turn out to be neither. In the end, of course, the head may want to plead that there is not enough money for proper equipment.

This may be so, but as we know, OFSTED is interested in value for whatever money is available to the school as a whole. It follows that a school has to demonstrate that as well as trying for more resources it is making the best possible use of those it has. Governors need to play their part here by building IT spending into the school budget. In general terms the hard reality, for example, is that even a medium-sized primary school should expect to buy one computer a year just to stand still.

Finally, it is important not to forget staff training, for well-trained and confident staff are obviously better-equipped to make use of limited resources. So where there are training needs - for specialists themselves as well as for less confident staff - inspectors will expect to find them recognised.

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