Human versus material assets

27th February 1998 at 00:00
What would you do if you had an extra #163;20,000 to spend on your school?Would you buy 4,000 books? Twenty new all-singing, all-dancing computers? A small hut-sized temporary building? Would you buy 100,000 bars of chocolate for the pupils (and rot their teeth) or 5,000 bottles of wine for the staff (and rot their livers)?

Now ask yourself this: would you rather spend every penny of your 20 grand windfall hiring one relatively inexperienced teacher instead? That is the dilemma facing schools in a cash-limited economy. Human resources are the most esteemed, but also the most expensive. Material resources are far cheaper. The wage bill takes some 80 per cent of the budget in many schools and, in small schools, this can rise to 90 per cent.

That is why cuts in the amount of cash available to schools have had such a devastating effect on book purchases in the last few years. You can only save so much by switching off lights and using envelopes twice. The real savings are achieved by shedding staff. Schools were reluctant to lose valued teachers or classroom assistants, so every possible element of the budget was raided to keep staff in place.

A few years ago, an inspector told me of his visit to a small, poorly funded village school. On arrival he asked whether he could see the school library. The head teacher reached under his desk and brought out about 15 to 20 paperbacks. "Here it is," he replied. At least they economised on a librarian's salary.

The result of pressure on school budgets over the past few years is that about a quarter of primary schools now spend less than #163;5 per pupil per annum on books. Small wonder that the government's welcome #163;1, 000-per-school book grant is likely to burn a hole in the pocket of those receiving it.

If publishers have any sense, they will offer special package deals to maximise what schools can purchase. With huge sums suddenly available nationally, they should be able to give substantial discounts. Wise teachers and heads will shop around. If there is one element of school life where understanding has been enhanced by local management of schools in the last few years, it is the value of cash.

However, money is not always used wisely. Human resources are the biggest consumers of funds, so the biggest efficiency factor is the intelligent use of highly paid people's time. I visited one primary school where the deputy head spent too much of his week supervising the collection of waste paper and car boot sales. It brought in a few pounds, but this paled into insignificance alongside the loss of his contribution to teaching and learning.

Material resources are now incredibly diverse. Anyone on their first visit to a large educational resources exhibition, such as the Education Show, is astonished at what is on offer. The sheer number of publishers and equipment manufacturers alone goes way beyond what most people imagine exists.

Take book resources. When I go to American exhibitions, the range is phenomenal. The books are often of outstanding quality, usually with full colour illustrations. The US market is so vast that long print runs bring down the unit cost, so high quality books can be quite cheap. British publishers usually have to make do with less lavish productions.

It is interesting to note fashions that come and go. A few years ago, I was very impressed with the many "Big Books" being published in the United States. These were giant sized, though thin tomes, often at least 20in long by 15 or more inches wide. They can be held up by the teacher for all to see, or they may be shared by three or four pupils. They are a very interesting example of how certain kinds of resource can be widely used in one context and ignored in another.

In the Leverhulme Primary Improvement Project at Exeter University we studied numerous schools to see what they did to improve literacy. Big Books were particularly popular in Birmingham primary schools; teachers' awareness of their possibilities as a classroom resource had been raised at courses run by the local education authority.

Many Birmingham teachers felt the sheer size of picture, text and punctuation allowed them to share features of text publicly in whole class teaching that would be too small to highlight using a normal sized or small book. One talked with enthusiasm of the opportunit y Big Books gave her to teach young children to read: "We have a Big Book focus every day. What we do most days is read a book together and every day pick out a different thing, like large print that makes you say the word louder, looking at the shape of words, trying to feel the sounds in the words and thinking of other words with the same sounds ..."

In many Birmingham infant classes, Big Books were used as a tool for drawing children's attention to capital letters, full stops, sentence structure and speech marks. Yet, in other local authorities, we never saw a single teacher using Big Books nor did any teacher mention them. A widely favoured resource in one area simply did not exist in another.

It is a pity that teachers in one school can be unaware of practice that has proved successful elsewhere. In medicine, there is more sharing. Surgeons who develop a new technique are expected to spread the expertise. It is unlikely that scalpel-wielders in Birmingham will use procedures that are unknown to colleagues in other parts of the country.

Another illuminating example of expertise with resources was a project I carried out with encyclopedias. Many households own a one-volume encyclopedia while most schools have single and multi-volume encyclopedias in their libraries. Yet when we tested the expertise of a group of 7 to 13-year-olds in the use of encyclopaedias, we found a wide skills range. Some children found information quickly and competently; others had not been taught the higher skills of reading.

Teachers made greatest use of encyclopedias with 9 to 11-year-olds. Secondary age children sometimes used them for orientation in a topic, but were more likely to head straight for the specialist reference books. Even older pupils were not always sure about index conventions, unaware, for example, that "6:210" means "Volume six, page 210", or that the abbreviation "illus" meant that there were illustrations.

This is often something that a good school librarian can help with, but they often feel undervalued. I addressed a conference of school librarians last year and many complained that teachers seemed reluctant to call on their expertise, expecting them to keepthe books tidy, but not encouraging them to assist children with their searches or show them the full range of resources available, including interactive technology such as CD-Roms.

That raises another aspect of resources: the many pieces of equipment, computers, software and other 21st century magic that can be seen at exhibitions. As someone who never had a toy train as a child, I am a sucker for anything with flashing lights and an electric current whirring silently through it. Stallholders see me coming, wide-eyed and credulous, and drag out their latest baubles.

One problem with technological wizardry, however, is Wragg's First Law of New Technology, which states that the likelihood of it failing is directly proportional to the importance of the occasion. Sit at home and it will work brilliantly. Use it with a class and it will hiccup from time to time. Try it with your worst group and it will cough and splutter. Be so daring as to use it during an inspection and you can guarantee that it will expire completely, usually amid grinding noises and smells of burning plastic.

A few years ago I witnessed the ultimate technological disaster while watching a student teaching an audio-visual French lesson. First the projector bulb blew. The tape recorder then drooled tape on to the floor. Pieces of cardboard placed against windows to black out the room fell one by one on to children's heads as lorries thundered by.

Just when the student wondered how she could mime Hang-gliding Across the Alps, or whatever the topic was, the class's regular teacher raced to the front of the lesson and barked: "Now be quiet, everybody, because that man at the back has come to see if Miss Jones can teach." It is at moments like this that a stick of chalk and a loud voice can seem the most user-friendly form of technology on the planet.

Not only am I a sucker for all the beeping equipment at exhibitions, but I love all the other paraphernalia to be found there. There are classroom resources I want to buy without knowing what to do with them, often sold by the engaging nutter who invented them. Weirdly shaped coloured lumps and sticks, hanging together by who knows what, Heath Robinson arrangement s of linked metal rods that look fascinating, but what on earth are you supposed to do with them? Go on then, I'll take one.

I went to one exhibition and bought three giant cuddly German puppets. You put your arm through a sleeve and operated the mouth with your free hand. I had only the vaguest idea what to do with them, but they were so attractive I knew I would find a use. Sure enough, the first class I took them into went absolutely crazy and had to be beaten back into their seats.They are wonderful for getting tongue-tied children to speak in role play.

Stickers are another ubiquitous resource. There are hundreds of varieties and teachers either love them or hate them. Sticker fans recognise that children go wild about them and some will work their socks off for one. Teachers who hate stickers dislike the incessant clamour for them and the endless hassle of doling them out. Nor do they enjoy the teacher's nightmare, which is the sudden burst of hysterical pupil laughter that tells you the elusive sticker you have been looking for is, in fact, stuck to your bum.

When I attended the American Educational Research Association conference a couple of years ago, I went to one lecture where the researcher had analysed 300,000 letters that 7 to 14-year-old American children had written to a popular television series. Some 200,000 of them included in their letter a request for a sticker.

One attractive feature of the New England Early Years conference, attended by 3, 000 teachers and parents in Boston each year, is the exhibition of teachers' home-made resources. There is a room where they can parade and celebrate (and, being Americans, also sell) their own teaching equipment and materials. I found it an inspiration - I am sure it would be worth doing here.

Finally, no exhibition of resources would be complete without at least one story of a strange visitor. At a conference of international schools three years ago, I walked past a stand where the exhibitor was literally standing with mouth open.

"Are you OK?," I asked, "You look shocked."

"I am indeed," the salesman replied pointing to a nondescript man in a rumpled raincoat. "You see that chap over there. Well he asked me how much our CD-Roms were and then bought a copy of every single one - thousands of pounds." The man was a teacher at a wealthy international school who had been given a blank cheque by his headteacher to "buy some new technology". Clearly a head case, in the nicest sense of the term.

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