An information technology windfall has sparked million-dollar questions, reports Susan Young. A Governmental whip-round among departments at the end of the financial year has come up with an extra Pounds 1 million to buy more laptop computers for classroom teachers.
At a time when the major parties are falling over each other to promise more technology for schoolchildren the announcement should provide something for Conservative ministers to boast about.
Nobody wants to look this gift horse in the mouth: it is an imaginative way of spending cash which might otherwise disappear back into the maw of the Treasury. But because of the money's provenance, it has to be spent by the end of March - giving the National Council for Educational Technology around six weeks to evaluate what is on offer, strike the hardest possible bargain and sign on the dotted line.
The money represents a continuation of a scheme begun last year, when Pounds 4m conjured up from nowhere in January was transformed into state-of-the-art laptops with CD-Roms and Internet access for around 1,300 classroom teachers by the summer. The intention was to get teachers, who do little information technology while training and even less on the job - as pointed out recently in the Chief Inspector Chris Woodhead's annual report - fully confident about computers and what they can do.
With no official report published as yet, mixed messages are emerging of the pilot's success. The director of the National Council for Educational Technology, which runs the scheme for the Government, says early indications are encouraging. A study done by the National Association of Advisers for Computers in Education suggests difficulties with lack of time between delivery and training and with the reliability of one make of portable chosen, and some software problems.
Headline announcements about IT funding are becoming increasingly popular in the phoney war of the election campaign, as politicians vie to invoke the magic of Harold Wilson's white heat of technology over computers in classrooms.
Tony Blair has promised that a Labour government would investigate ways of giving access to a laptop for every schoolchild, and announced a superhighways deal with British Telecom. In the Government, Michael Heseltine has set up an information technology committee and the Department for Education and Employment under Gillian Shephard is also pushing hard on its Superhighways Initiative. Besides the portables scheme, a Pounds 100,000 pilot Intranet project will give four technology schools video-conferencing facilities and an "electronic whiteboard" for teaching several classes simultaneously. Both major parties have promised to use Millennium Fund money, the Conservatives to buy computers and Labour to fund IT teacher training.
Announcing that there are now 13 computers in the average primary school, compared with 10 in 1994, and 96 in every secondary, compared with 85 in 1994, education minister Lord Henley said: "This adds up to real progress in this key area and hammers home the message that the Government puts education at the top of its agenda and recognises the key skill of IT in raising standards not only among our young people but also among their teachers."
But as an expanding area, school IT is almost uniquely problematic. It can involve huge sums of money spent with private companies. Equipment can become obsolete very quickly, and it is often almost impossible for individual schools to make informed decisions between all the different possibilities on offer, particularly now that some of the major players in the general computer industry are eyeing up schools as the bridge into the lucrative home market.
Another pitfall for the unwary is spending on software and hardware, but skimping on training. According to Doug Masterton, past president of the National Association of Advisers in Computer Education, it is not unknown for schools which spend thousands on computers to find their investment is wasted because they have not bought any training for the teachers who have to use them.
Then there are general principles. Is it better to buy lots of palmtop computers, which children can take home, or a smaller number of desktop machines? And, in a nation which is still asking itself whether calculators should be allowed in maths exams, there are even more general issues to be discussed. Should information technology be taught at all? And if so, should lessons be dedicated or the technology used across the curriculum as an integral part of information-gathering and learning?
Mr Masterton, director of the Leeds Education IT centre, said it was always possible to call for more resources, but it would come to the point where schools had to choose between human resources and machines.
Plucking figures from the air, he said that if a school decided that computers should be shared between two pupils, it would buy Pounds 1,500 machines intended to last for five years plus some training and maintenance. The investment would cost Pounds 45 per pupil per year - at a time when overall spending per pupil was unlikely to top Pounds 100.
He would have preferred to have seen the Government's new Pounds 1m investment spent on around 2,500 palm-top computers to build up and demonstrate good practice with classes of pupils, rather than on around 250 state-of-the-art laptops for teachers.
Chris Abbott, visiting research fellow at King's College, London, was concerned about the readiness of politicians to contemplate donations of used computers from industry as part of their commitment to school provision.
Labour had not ruled out using such a scheme to help deliver its promises, he said, but second-hand computers could end up costing schools much time and money.
Not only could there be health and safety problems, he said, but teachers needed to be trained on the machines and educational software bought, all of which could make it an expensive proposition.
However, Fred Daly, director of the NCET, said many schools would be delighted to receive used computers: 486s would be powerful enough to run modern software.
He thought politicians were largely clued-up on computers and schools. "As far as we are concerned, if all parties are talking about this it is a very good thing. Information technology is so important for the world of work.
"I think there is a very strong realisation among politicians and advisers that schools, universities and the world of work are so dependent on information technology and electronic communication and it is vital to the economy. And it is a help with teaching as well.
"Children can, say, research in history and refer to primary sources in a way which was once the province of third-year undergraduates," said Mr Daly.
WHY INFORMATION TECHNOLOGY SHOULD BE TAUGHT IN SCHOOLS
* It has great power to be used for good or evil and only through widespread understanding may political decisions and structures be shaped to ensure technology is used to protect democracy.
* It represents a major step in the development of human capability.
* It is reshaping the economic structures of developed societies and must be widely used to ensure the continuing ability of the country to create wealth and sustain its existence.
* It has contributed to change in almost every field of endeavour.
* It provides a tool to improve human efficiency and creativity in a way beyond any previous invention.
* To help understanding of the way in which communication, information handling, measurement and control have been made more powerful through IT and their extent and importance in modern society.
* To ensure knowledge and skills are widely shared and the highest possible proportion of the population has the opportunity to use such technology.
Adapted from a paper written by Doug Masterton, of the National Association of Advisers for Computers In Education