Computers, computers, computers. They're everywhere. But are they really the panacea for teachers' workload problems that the Government claims? Martin Whittaker investigates the power of the PC.
Are computers the solution to work overload? Staff at the Winston Churchill school in Woking, Surrey, are about to find out. The school has installed a desktop computer in every classroom and 40 laptops are to be distributed among the departments. Its library is about to get a makeover, to be relaunched as a learning resource centre with a further 60 PCs.
All the computers and laptops will be networked, allowing teachers to access all the resources they need, in the classroom and at home. "This is nothing to do with teaching the pupils IT," says the school's information and communication technology manager, Ian Ward. "It's simply designed to see if this is one way of easing the paperwork and the pressures on teachers, to find out if everything being electronic and easily accessible from home or at school is going to make our lives easier. I think many of the staff are optimistic that it's going to be worthwhile."
The Winston Churchill school, a large 11-16 comprehensive, is one of 32 primaries and secondaries throughout England taking part in the Government's pound;4 million School Workforce Pathfinder project. The aim of the project is to discover how teaching can be improved through greater use of ICT; it has the backing of the teaching unions.
The Government is keen to trumpet its investment in technology.Schools minister Cathy Ashton claims there are more computers in schools than ever before and, according to figures released by the Department for Education and Skills at the start of this term, since April 1999 more than 240,000 teachers have completed ICT training, while teacher confidence in using new technologies has risen from 63 per cent four years ago to 77 per cent.
The department is well advanced with its pound;100 million Laptops for Teachers initiative. It says more than 50,000 PCs or laptops have already been provided under various schemes over the past two years, and claims that about 60,000 more teachers will get personal access to computers this financial year.
Meanwhile, most schools in England are now connected to the internet, an increasing number with a fast broadband connection. Birmingham Grid for Learning has extended its service for schools, providing teachers and pupils with personalised access to the learning grid. And, from this month, 1,400 schools across the north-east will be served by a new Northern Grid Portal, an online resource for teachers, children and parents. Teachers will be able to create their own doorway to the internet, which they can customise to suit their own style of working.
"It's something that will potentially benefit every teacher in the north-east," says the Northern Grid's manager, Mel Philipson.
But is technology changing teachers' jobs for the better? Paul Mundt, ICT co-ordinator at Tanbridge House school in Horsham, West Sussex, and a national executive member of the National Association of Schools Union of Women Teachers, says: "It's introducing other problems as you go along, some of them workload problems. How does a teacher deal with his or her emails? I've just had a class and they've all sent me their homework by email. I'm now realising I've got 23 emails to deal with. When do I do it?"
Half the staff at Tanbridge House have a laptop, but Mr Mundt doesn't leave it up to colleagues to book space in the computer room - he timetables it. "It's not just their own, it's how you integrate IT into your lessons. And you've got to make people do it initially. Because if you just allow free choice, some people won't, and that means some children won't get the opportunity."
He says training is also an issue. "I don't think a teacher is going to sit down at night and speculatively search and find materials. They've got to have the materials in some sort of training package."
Guy Rudnick, a 42-year-old science teacher at Cornwallis school in Maidstone, Kent, has been teaching for three years after a career in industry. He uses his own laptop because he hasn't yet had one from the school. "I've got my timetables, all my lesson plans and registers linked up, so that saves me time, although, because it's my own laptop, I don't take it to school as often as I should.
"But if I had a school laptop, I'd hyperlink my timetable to my register to my lesson plan. That's how it helps me - it helps me keep track of my assessments. And I develop a lot of spreadsheets and PowerPoint displays which I use with a multimedia projector as a teaching tool."
The National Union of Teachers is supporting the use of ICT to ease the burden of administration tasks. But the union says the Government's roll-out of laptops is woefully slow. "We have said for a long time now that the Government should give every teacher a laptop and provide them with the training," says Jerry Glazier, an executive member of the union. "And if you then integrate that into an effective grid for learning, it's encouraging a coherent collective view of its use, which is absolutely critical. Just giving teachers a laptop in itself will do a lot for those teachers who are self-motivated and can see the potential, but nothing for those who are sceptical, or phobic."
One development which the NUT believes should be a model for the Government is the south east of England virtual education action zone (Seeveaz). The zone covers a network of 19 primary and secondary schools across Essex and Bromley. More than two years ago, all the schools' 800 teachers were given laptops, since when their skills have been surveyed and found to have improved significantly.
Seeveaz has won praise from Ofsted for its work in investigating how new technologies can be used to assist teachers and remove some of the administrative burden. In its first two years, the project has received more than pound;1.5 million worth of backing, much of it in the form of payment in kind, including training and software.
The inspectors found that teachers are delighted with their laptops, and are using them for report writing, lesson planning, individual lesson content, email and research. "They started to use them in ways they were comfortable with. First of all, they started to put lessons on them, and things such as their reports and their marking and assessments," says the zone's director, Merril Haeusler. "They found straight away that by using the laptops this way, it reduced a lot of the bureaucracy and paperwork that becomes a nightmare for teachers."
Ms Haeusler joined the action zone from her native Australia, where she worked for the department of education and had seen the beneficial effects of every teacher in the state of Victoria being given a laptop. "I applaud the notion that the Government, through the LEAs, is distributing laptops to teachers. My only concern is the amount of time it's going to take before all teachers have this valuable tool," she says.
"The other vexing issue is that I'm sure that, by the time the roll-out is complete, there's going to be something else other than a laptop. Technology is moving on so quickly. Our view was we cannot stand still and wait for it.
"In fact, we are about to upgrade all our laptops because we are in the wonderful position where our teachers are saying that the machine that was given to them two years ago doesn't do everything they want it to do."
Maybe teachers at Winston Churchill school will soon be in the privileged position of being able to complain about slow computers. For the moment, they're just happy to be taking their first step up the ICT ladder.