With ICT expenditure in schools at an all-time high, how efficiently is that money being spent? And why are there such disparities? How can you get the most for your money and ensure your school gets what it really needs? George Cole looks at the broader issues of ICT funding, while other writers examine the key issues in depth
As a result of a range of initiatives encouraging schools to extend ICT support to parents, combined with growing grass roots demand from parents themselves, many of you are having to develop ways of providing advice about the use of computers at home.
Questions range from buying a computer, choosing educational software or getting online. None of these is necessarily easy to answer, partly because the technology changes so rapidly, and partly because what is available and suitable for the home environment is often different to the technology used in schools.
Much of the information about what to buy or where to go changes all the time, so relax, it is virtually impossible to become the local expert overnight. Your first course of action should be to find reliable reference points for yourself. Some of these can then be passed on to parents via your school's website or noticeboard.
So where do you start and to what extent can you be a port of call for parents needing advice?
Buying a computer is a tricky area as the hardware changes very quickly and you are unlikely to have current and ongoing experience yourself (see Hands On, page 24). Certainly it is very difficult to offer definitive recommendations. The most you should attempt to do is help parents clarify some key issues, unravel the jargon and identify some of the questions they should be asking:
* Which platform are they going to opt for, PC or Mac? Parents may wish to consider having the same platform as their child uses at school, although this is not essential.
* Their choice of computer will depend in part on budget. The price range now stretches from pound;500 to pound;1,800.
Other things to consider include:
* What do they want to use the computer for? If it is games or picturesphotographs, they will need to buy at the higher end of the price range as a high specification is essential. Whatever the case, parents should always try to buy the highest specification they can afford.
* After-sales support can often be neglected but is really important - some supplier helplines are very expensive and off-site maintenance arrangements can be costly and inconvenient.
* Where is the best place to buy? Unfortunately shopping around is the name of the game and there is no quick fix. Retail is the most likely option. Mail order tends to be cheaper but not very easy to negotiate for the inexperienced buyer. Your school hardware supplier might offer a special deal for home users linked to your establishment - if so, this could be an option to explore.
* A printer is essential for children's computer use at home and is sometimes included in the package at a very competitive price.
* Warn parents against being enticed by hundreds of pounds worth of "free software". This is usually not a good enough reason to buy a particular computer. Many of the programs "bundled" with home computers are very disappointing in reality. However, some educational offerings include Encarta, or Encyclopaedia Britannica, both of which are strong sound bets.
This leads neatly into the next (and bigger) challenge for those parents who own a computer. How can they make the most of it as a tool to support their children's education? Much of this is about software. Parents often turn to their child's teacher to ask which educational programs they should buy. It is important to bear in mind that school educational software is not necessarily the sam as that available to parents in the consumer marketplace, or appropriate for use at home.
You might consider taking out a subscription to one of the high street magazines such as ComputerActive or PC Home, both of which review some of the latest educational software. As well as helping to keep yourself up to speed, parents can then use this as a resource. However, the majority of reviews are inevitably for games.
For a more comprehensive body of information, the Parents Information Network (PIN) provides an independent evaluation service specifically identifying educational software that works well at home. Each of the 200+ products, covering all subject areas and age ranges from early learning to A Level, has been tried and tested by teachers and families. The results of these evaluations are published on the PIN website at www.pin.org.uk. You can either use the PIN software database as a reference tool yourself to help you offer advice to parents or direct parents straight to it.
What about getting online? Most new computers are now Internet ready, ie they have a modem and come pre-installed with connection software. There are currently over 100 service providers all offering different pricing structures or Internet packages. The most you can do is give some sound pointers:
* Parents need to bear in mind that ISPs target specific audiences such as business, young people, families, etc. Advise them to look for a general mainstream family service with parental controls (parents are unlikely to use filtering software straight away).
* "Free" ISPs are obviously attractive. The catch lies in the cost of their telephone support which is very expensive unless parents can buy into a support package for a monthly fee when signing up. This might be a good idea for the first couple of months.
* It is worth considering a flat-rate subscription with AOL or Freeserve. For pound;14.99 (AOL) and pound;12.99 (Freeserve) a month you can stay online as long as you like at no additional charge. AOL also still offers free accounts for primary schools.
* Internet magazines tend to be geared at business or young computer buffs so are not very helpful sources of support for families. However, computer magazines and newspapers often include "one-off" features on Internet basics. It is worth looking out for these.
* Find out if the ISP offers more than one email address per account so that each family member can have their own.
* If they buy a new computer they don't have to go with the pre-installed ISPs. They could decide to start with one of the free ISPs. If they don't like it, they are not committed in any way and can just try another.
If you are considering a greater provision of ICT advice and support for parents, there are some fundamental principles to consider:
* Don't do it just because you think you have to. Do it for a positive reason. It means extra work, so you have to know the benefits.
* Don't launch into anything on your own. The most successful projects involve a team of contributors.
* Don't forget that your parent community has many skills and areas of expertise which you might be able to draw on. Parents like to feel that they are part of the plot rather than just being "done to".
* Don't underestimate the contribution many parents can make to their children's education if they are helped to do so.
* Don't forget that the home learning environment is different from school. This is one of its great strengths. It would be a great shame to lose this by trying to make home and school the same.
Jacquie Disney is a director of the Parents Information Network (wwwpin.org.uk), an independent service for parents who want to help their children learn using computers and the Internet