Inspect a gadget, find it wanting

7th September 2007 at 01:00
Mike Kent is headteacher of Comber Grove Primary, Camberwell, south London

During the summer, three more interactive whiteboards were installed. Well, two and a half, actually. Holidays are a good time for this sort of thing because something always goes wrong. This time one of the projectors didn't work. No particular reason. It just stopped working. ICT was being its usual pain in the butt.

In fact, I'd begun to feel I was developing a negative view about technology, so last term I attended an ICT course for school leaders. The idea was to do some "blue skies thinking" about your school: where are you now, where are you going, and where will educational ICT be in 20 years time? That sort of thing.

The trouble is, as I pointed out to the course leader, the stuff is still too unreliable. Very clever, yes, but the hardware breaks down, the software crashes, everything goes out of date with alarming speed, and if you can't afford a technician to keep things running smoothly, you're walking on eggshells. Not so, said our instructor. He took his mobile from his pocket and said that five years ago it would have been four times the size and prone to all kinds of faults. This one, he said, hadn't gone wrong once even when he'd dropped it down the toilet.

Well, I don't know how much contact he has with reality in schools, but to prove my point four things happened the very next day. The server in our ICT suite packed up. Speakers on a whiteboard refused to work. Our Admin Officer couldn't upload the PLASC census material a fault on the Department for Children, Schools and Families site, apparently. And the local authority said that a data disc we'd sent had a virus. Could we possibly send the data on paper instead? The Government doesn't seem to have had much success, either, spending billions on computer systems that don't work.

The problem particularly for schools, with their limited budgets is that the pace of technology waits for nobody. A brilliantly clever piece of software will be released, then a new, improved, uncrashable version comes along quickly followed by a third when that turns out not to be infallible. Take the suite of programs our school office uses, for example. Yes, it's good, but we have to pay for regular updates, as well as telephone support. And the contract certainly doesn't include a visit from a technician. That's several hundred extra.

Nevertheless, electronic whiteboards are currently the must-have classroom accessory, and they're fascinating when used well. I just hope I've retired when all the bulbs pop they cost a fortune. And I certainly didn't bargain for the very expensive security cages we found necessary after our first lot of projectors were nicked one Sunday morning. Interestingly, current surveys indicate that all this amazing wizardry hasn't done much to raise standards.

But back to my ICT course ... on day two, we were shown a government video of some primary schools supposedly at the cutting edge of ICT. In one sequence, we watched a literacy lesson, with each child sitting at a computer screen holding a "voting stick" a remote control with coloured buttons to push, indicating the child's choice of connectives for sentences. It looked incredibly boring, but the teacher was on a high, saying that each push of a button sent results to a pupil-specific data bank, which even did away with marking.

All I can says is, if this is the way things are going, I'm glad my own children aren't at primary school any more.


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