Birmingham's chief education officer explains his resolute belief in the value of technologyto schools.
Ask Tim Brighouse if he doubts the wisdom of spending large sums of government money on putting computer technology into schools, and his answer is unequivocal: "No." Such certainty from Birmingham's chief education officer stems from his view of information and communications technology as a means of helping those stuck on society's bottom rung. "If we get it right in terms of access, we could overcome some of the potential barriers created by poverty," he says. "People raised in poverty have fewer aids for learning."
Though Brighouse says other factors, such as emotional support, play a part in helping children achieve their potential, he's certain children brought up in tower blocks without access to books are disadvantaged compared with those with a home computer and Internet connection. "If we can improve housing as well as education, we might make the playing field a little more even," he adds.
It is easy to see why Brighouse is so committed to using technology as a means of improving opportunity when you consider the deprivation that can be found in Birmingham. But ask him for other reasons to support the use of technology in schools and he is virtually unstoppable: "It's a major leap forward in the capacity to extend the techniques of teaching and learning, probably the biggest development since the printing press. Look at children with physical barriers and how ICT can help them extend themselves. Libraries that are dog-eared and tired can be a treasure trove with the Internet and CD-Rom."
This is not just talk, as Birmingham is committed to spending millions on the Birmingham Grid for Learning, which will link schools and libraries.
Brighouse is also a big supporter of integrated learning systems, which use computers to teach specific skills: "ILS can motivate individual kids to extend their skills. There is also an excitement when you can see teachers using ICT as a tool for analysing data, word processing and so on."
The area of communications is particularly exciting, says Brighouse: "There are a range of possibilities such as instant contact, particularly with the best teachers. That's a real step forward.
"To be able to network through video-conferencing will be great, although we won't be there for another three to five years. But what all of this will do is bring the highest common factor intoteaching."
The National Grid for Learning will be a valuable asset to education, says Brighouse. And he generally approves of the Government's plan for establishing it. But he is concerned about the ability of some local authorities to put it into place: "We're lucky because we have the expertise and we can adjust a national programme, so you can't fault the Government on this. But some areas will be pushed to get the expertise for it."
Getting teachers confident and competent in the use of technology is a huge task, says Brighouse. "What we're trying to do is tie teachers' personal lives with their professional time when it comes to ICT."
One of the best ways of doing this is to equip them with their own computers. Birmingham runs a low-cost loan system to encourage teachers to buy their own equipment, and Brighouse advocates tax breaks for this purpose. "The bread would come back buttered if teachers used ICT in the home because people get intrigued by the possibilities technology offers."
The Government's decision to establish a general teachers council in England and Wales shows that it is listening to teachers and learners, he says. But what about those who say that the examination and assessment system needs to be changed if technology is ever going to be taken seriously? And in an age of league tables, won't schools focus on them rather than technology?
"Any school that takes ICT seriously will not find that it does them any harm in terms of the crude attainment tables," says Brighouse. "ICT motivates kids, and many of them go into school early so they can use computer-assisted learning schemes."
And anyway, says Brighouse, arguments over assessment have raged for ages:
"Some examinations let you take books into the exam hall because they're more interested in how you use the information. Our examination system is a major part of the education system that lags behind the needs of the day. It always has. Employers talk about the importance of team work, but I'm pushed to think of an assessment system that uses teamwork."