Learning centres given the go-ahead

16th April 1999 at 01:00
The Budget plumped for a loan scheme for teachers and not computers for all, but there were other reasons for cheer. Chris Johnston reports

A pound;20 million scheme to give teachers low-cost loans to buy computers was a key element of a package announced after last month's Budget by David Blunkett, the Education Secretary.

There were hopes that the Government might bite the bullet and give each of Britain's 400,000 teachers a computer, but the pound;400 million cost of such a move was deemed too high.

Mr Blunkett said a further pound;15 million would go toward helping the less well-off have the chance to lease recycled and refurbished computers cheaply, for possibly as little as pound;5 a month.

Details of how both schemes would work were still unavailable from the Department for Education and Employment as Online went to press.

The Budget delivered by Gordon Brown, the Chancellor, provided an extra pound;470 million for IT in the UK through the Capital Modernisation Fund. Of the slice given to education, about pound;100 million will be spent on creating a network of 80 learning centres aimed at raising school standards and improving access for all to information and communications technology. A total of 800 centres were planned.

The first 30 will be operating by September next year, with more following in the next two years. Initially, they will be located in successful or rapidly improving schools or further education colleges in six inner-city areas: inner and north-east London, ManchesterSalford, LiverpoolKnowsley, Birmingham, LeedsBradford and SheffieldRotherham.

ICT will be the key to ensuring the centres provide benefits to pupils across an area and they will be responsible for providing support to partner schools and libraries.

High-capacity telephone links (broadband) will enable the centres to also act as local hubs for the soon-to-be-renamed University for Industry, which will widen access to vocational courses and lifelong learning. "These centres will be targeted at developing partnerships with business to meet the skills need of tomorrow," Blunkett said.

"They will give young people access to new approaches to learning and offer a greatly expanding range of opportunities before and after school. The centres will act as a core for cascading best practice and working with neighbouring schools and may also develop language laboratories, cybercafes or arts facilities.

"It is vital that we prevent a generation of children emerging as the information poor. ICT will allow us all to access the future and will help underpin prosperity and equality of opportunity into the next century for young and old alike," he said.

However, Blunkett stressed that ICT was one way to help raise school standards, but would complement - not replace - the basic skills of literacy and numeracy.

Other measures announced in the Budget included tax breaks of up to 80 per cent for Individual Learning Account holders, which is intended to make basic computer training courses affordable for all, and tax relief to workers loaned computers by their employers.

Blunkett also announced that a new group will oversee co-ordination between the University for Industry, the National Grid for Learning and the New Opportunities Fund investment in libraries and community facilities.

Laptop use is 'a pain in the neck'

Children who use laptop computers are at risk of damaging their bodies, a new study has found.

Sixty per cent of the 314 West Australian students aged 10 to 17 surveyed suffered discomfort when using their laptops. They reported using the computers for more than three hours a day.

Pain was experienced in the neck, lower back, shoulders and head, which researchers Leon Straker and Courtenay Harris of Curtin University in Perth, said was probably related to the time spent using the laptops and the unusual postures assumed. Lying on the floor or a bed was the most popular, followed by sitting on the floor. Most students also reported discomfort from carrying a laptop.

"We are concerned that serious permanent damage may be done to developing bodies by using laptops,"they said.

The researchers called for schools to set guidelines to protect students against potential musculoskeletal damage. They urged parents to buy the lightest device possible to minimise any risk.

Dr Straker said that the increasing use of desktop computers was also cause for concern. "Very little research is available on the physical implications of children using computers over prolonged periods, but research from adults in office work suggests a significant risk."

He is planning a large international study to better understand the problem.


Sharp rise in school spending

British schools will spend an estimated pound;192 million on computers and software in 199899, up 25 per cent - almost pound;40 million - on the previous year, a new survey reveals. It also indicates that information and communications technology now accounts for 20 per cent of an average school's resources spending. Resources budgets for UK schools increased by an estimated pound;43 million to pound;920 million.

The British Educational Suppliers Association survey, based on responses from 497 primary and 317 secondary schools, indicated that growth in spending on ICT has risen most in primary schools, with an increase of 33 per cent to pound;71.7 million. On average, pound;2,800 is spent on ICT per school and pound;13 per primary pupil.

Secondary schools' spending is also expected to rise, by 21 per cent, to pound;120 million. The average spend on ICTper secondary pupil is up by pound;5 to nearly pound;29 on 199798 levels.

However, the survey points out that the amount spent on ICT "varies considerably by school", with the average just under pound;24,000, compared with pound;19,700 in 199798.

Significantly, secondaries are devoting a bigger slice of their ICT budget to software, with spending up by 23 per cent to an estimated pound;17.8 million. Nevertheless, the survey finds that primary schools are likely to spend proportionally more on software than secondaries. The increase is 22 per cent, bringing the total to pound;15.9 million.

Asked about their spending on resources, ICT was clearly the most important for secondary schools, with 69 per cent indicating it was one of their two priorities. For primaries, literacy was the most likely area for resources spending, with 55 per cent identifying it as a priority. ICT, though,was close behind at 50 per cent.

The survey concludes that:"Overall, it appears that primary and secondary schools in Scotland and Northern Ireland were more concerned with prioritising spend on ICT and science, while schools in England and Wales were more likely to focus on literacy."

The rise in spending is due to additional central government funding, particularly for the National Grid for Learning, but the report says that PTA fundraising and retail voucher schemes have also made an impact.

UK Schools Survey on Budget and Resource Provision 1999 Edition, BESA, pound;250 (free for members).

0171 537 4997 www.besanet.org.uk


Robin Ritzema has resigned as head of the Education and Training Technology Division - the Department for Education and Employment's ITsection. He has held the position since October 1995 and observers believe his departure is the result of a disagreement between himself and ministers. Ritzema becomes responsible for the division's international work. Ralph Tabberer, of the Standards and Effectiveness Unit, replaces him in a caretaker role.

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