It's not the perfect role model, but the private sector can advise schools on the use of ICT in day-to-day business. Gerald Haigh reports
A North-Eastern primary school is due to take delivery of 12 computers. The head, buoyed by a sandwich and a vision of the future, interrupts his half-term break to be at the school at 7.30am. Seven-thirty comes and goes. The head calls the supplier who says the van left on time, but that the transport company had lost track of it. "We'll load up another one and send it out now," they promise. "When a van comes, be sure to say, 'Are you van one or van two?'" they add.
Van two turns up late the next day, having delivered in another part of the country. The head never saw van one. The transport firm's guidance system, based on postcodes, has been subverted by drivers who prefer to use a road map.
Hang on, what was that about schools learning from business? A cheap jibe, maybe, but the point is that there are no quick fixes. Businesses are, in some ways, like schools. They are both capable of leavening high achievement with a dash of lunacy. Nevertheless, many firms have heavily utilised ICT for longer than most schools - meaning that there are interesting lessons to be learned. This has certainly been the experience of the 20 or so senior teachers each year who accept a 12-month business placement organised by HTI ("Heads, Teachers and Industry"). Pat McCarthy, head of Eaglesfield School in Greenwich, used his placement with BT to produce its far-reaching report, Heading for the Superhighway.
HTI chief executive Anne Evans says: "Every placement provides involvement with ICT because, in business, ICT has been the main communication tool for a long time. People who didn't access their emails, didn't know what was going on." Such was the experience of Andrew Shaw, head of Kirkhallam Community School in Derbyshire, who spent a year at management consultancy 121 Consulting in Birmingham. "I was amazed at the role ICT had. We'd led a sheltered existence in schools and, when I returned, I was determined to get things moving."
Shaw's first priority was to improve the way senior staff used ICT. "This morning, for example, I was working on the details we send out to applicants for teaching posts. I put the document on the school network and emailed people asking them to look at it. It's so easy and efficient, and I find it's made more time for us to get together to talk and plan."
Stan Terry, deputy head of Icknield Community School in Oxford, is currently helping to introduce a new computer system at pharmaceutical giant Glaxo-Wellcome. He talks of a complete reappraisal of how people do their jobs. "We have to train 3,000 people in the next six months. It's a fundamental change in the approach to work and responsibilities."
Along the way, he is learning the tools used in any new ICT project. "I've been undertaking a needs analysis. You have to understand where people are coming from and set training at different levels."
Schools, Terry says, face similar changes. "A teacher will become an information manager, helping students to be discriminating users of the system, to apply higher reasoning in analysing information." Done properly, the ICT revolution should go right to the heart of what happens in the classroom.
Pete Anstey, deputy head at Moseley School in Birmingham, is already applying these lessons. He has had industrial experience, as well as a HTI placement at the British Educational and Communications Technology Agency (BECTA). For him, ICT is not just something that will help teachers with what they are already doing. "We can't just make existing school systems fit it. We have to adapt and develop them. That, in some contexts, is what business does well."
But Anstey wonders if the independent, flexible way of learning implied by advances in ICT really fits with the rigidity of some curricular and inspection demands. "There's a conflict between the vision that some people have for ICT and the practical management of a school that's going to be inspected." Future employers, he says, want "genuine independent learners who can go into a working environment, identify opportunities and use their skills". Consequently, teachers must summon up the confidence to do what they know is right, he says.
Evans regrets that HTI cannot fund more secondments and welcomes the recent Green Paper's mention of sabbaticals. But, she says: "My concern is that they will just be research bursaries, and I hope they're working secondments. There's a need to take on the new learning. I see that as an entitlement for teachers."
HTI Leadership and Management Tel: 01203 410104 www.warwick.ac.uk