According to the X Files, the truth is out there, somewhere. You get roughly the same response every time someone asks where the evidence is to demonstrate the effectiveness of information and communications technology (ICT) in education. Politicians and civil servants used to ask it in a backhanded sort of way to justify not doing very much in the way of putting ICT into schools. Then it gradually sank in that technology was permeating every other part of our lives so it was asked less. Now this perennial question is being asked for a far better reason - so that the huge investments are effective, and so that any insights can be fed back into classrooms to help the people who are supposed to be making ICT and the National Grid for Learning (NGFL) a success - the teachers.
Even more encouraging, the "keeper" of the NGFL, the British Educational and Communications Agency, is setting up a new department to make sure that all the relevant evidence and good practice is collated and made available to everyone in education. It's a timely and very welcome move, and the appointment of Dr Angela McFarlane, well known for her work in ICT at Homerton College, Cambridge, to the key post of director of evidence and good practice augurs well for rigour and good communications. Better still, she will be feeding that important information with style and wit on to these very pages in a regular column (is that enough now Angela?). If you're not a regular reader you can keep up to date via our Web pages.
The mental picture of John Major posing for photographers in front of a PC while his Minister for Science and Technology manipulated the keyboard and mouse under the table is an amusing one, well deserving of its place in the last century, possibly more suited to an episode of Monty Python. What it underlines is the importance of a forward looking, committed leadership for any major national project.
John Major's misfortune, however, was Tony Bair's gain, and the only possible loss for the rest of us is that the man under the table, Ian Taylor MP, was probably the best NGFL minister we never had (Watershed, page 38).
Blair's administration kicked off with a flourish and, much more important, a coherent strategy for ICT. That's why it is significant and extremely positive that there are moves across the UK to provide teachers with computers.
The models for implementing the various schemes vary, and all have strengths and weaknesses, but let's hope that none of the schemes are seen as a perfect fix because they are not. They are just the first steps in helping all teachers towards PC ownership. And when there is enough confidence to take a bold move and provide all teachers who need them with laptops - free - that should be done.
Home ownership for teachers is a significant contribution towards developing ICT skills. It is one of the pieces in the jigsaw that will achieve successful ICT in schools.
Most employees, in the public sector, would expect their employers to pay for their laptops if they were required to use them for their work. The same should apply to teachers. Which is why The TES launched its "free laptops for teachers" campaign.
It's very easy to point out the flaws in the current moves, but dwelling on them too much could undermine the commitment that created them in the first place and moved events forward. We want solutions, not problems. However, the increased awareness, and the resentment and envy among many teachers caused by the inevitable inequalities of the schemes, can be a very useful lever to get a better deal out of the Government. What's required is more cash and a greater variety of offerings - for example, handhelds like the Psions (page 26) have long proved their educational worth and may be just what many teachers need and want. It's best to see current developments as the beginning rather than a one-off solution.