Invest in the future

17th March 2000 at 00:00
Chris Johnston examines sources for funding ICT provision and suggests new models may be required.

Information and communications technology is an expensive business, as anyone who has had to fund a new suite or network of PCs or buy a computer for personal use will attest. Schools have benefited from the hundreds of millions of pounds this Government has allocated to ICT in schools. According to the most recent Department for Education and Employment figures, secondary schools spent an average of pound;45,400 on ICT last year, an increase of pound;5,300 on 1998. Primaries spent an average of pound;6,800, up by pound;3,200.

Yet there are still disparities between education authorities and schools in the same local education authority. These differences mostly were dependent on the importance senior managers placed on ICT. So often the schools with the best computers are those with visionary heads who have convinced others that making the best possible use of technology is beneficial to both students and the school itself.

It is easy to see why heads faced with a budget shortfall decide not to spend money on a new computer suite if it means sacking a teacher. School managers may have to accept, though, that a greater proportion of their budget will need to go on ICT in future.

Although the National Grid for Learning has provided millions of pounds through the Standards Fund, it accounted for only 10 per cent of secondary schools' spending on ICT in 199899, with 60 per cent coming from local management of schools. The same figure for primaries was 46 per cent, with the Standards Fund making up 34 per cent - reflecting the need for more spending to increase the level of provision.

The other sources of ICT funding for secondaries was the Specialist Schools Initiative (10 per cent), the local authority (6 per cent), central government (5 per cent) and other sources (5 per cent). For primaries, local authorities and parent teacher associations and parents made up 6 per cent each, central government 3 per cent and other sources 4 per cent.

For secondary schools at least, these figures indicate that the majority of funding is not going to come from specific government grants but routine operating funds. But as Paul Kelley, head of Monkseaton Community High school in Whitley Bay, North Tyneside, points out, technology has never been a formal part of school budgets. Now that the world has changed and ICT is an inescapable part of modern life, he believes it is time for funding models to change.

The Government has put much faith in the "managed services" concept in which computers are supplied and serviced for a regular fee. The concept is sound, as it accounts for often overlooked expenditure such as depreciation, training and servicing. But Mr Kelley says that unds for a managed service have to come from the revenue budget, rather than capital expenditure, which is very difficult for most schools.

The British Educational Communications and Technology Agency says more schools now realise that one-off computer purchases are high in maintenance costs and less "stable" for users. Education users deserve a professional ICT service, but the danger is that only well-off schools will be able to afford it. Alistair Wells, head of IT at Netherhall school in Cambridge, says the cost of a managed service is likely to rise rather than fall over time.

Such services are blurring the distinction between capital and revenue spending, but the DFEE has yet to address this problem. Under the new pound;190 million Formula Capital fund schools can buy ICT equipment but only for new classrooms that are being funded from the same pot of money (see page 29).

With staffing costs accounting for 70 to 80 per cent of school budgets, reducing staff would be one way to pay for better ICT for schools. But Mr Kelley says even if that were possible, it is not necessarily desirable. Nevertheless, he feels the work underway to improve teachers' competence in ICT and the availability of useful online educational content will be wasted if pupils do not have better access to computers. (The average number of pupils per computer is eight in secondary schools and 13 in primaries.) Monkseaton, with 850 pupils, benefits from a range of corporate sponsorship and European funding that takes its annual ICT spending to about pound;60,000 - only 3 per cent of its pound;2 million budget, which is fairly typical for a school of its size.

Even when schools have the money to invest in technology they still have to decide how best to spend it. Many schools are investing in networks so that teachers and pupils can share information internally as well as access to e-mail and the Internet. Wiring a site, however, is expensive and unless you install enough sockets for every student it will not be future-proof if laptop ownership becomes universal.

Predictions that portable computing devices will soon be so cheap that everyone can afford one do not make life any easier for those wrestling now with the challenge of ensuring school leavers have a good understanding of ICT - one of the Government's aims. Mr Wells believes there is a need for more guidance to help school leaders down the right ICT strategy track. (Jim Donnelly's recent ICT and the Learning Revolution, SHA Publications, pound;9.95, is one source of down-to-earth information.) Perhaps the Government needs to introduce a new way to fund ICT in schools when the four-year National Grid for Learning programme concludes in 2002.


BECTA stand P32

DFEE stand K11

SHA stand L70

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