New from old

9th March 2001 at 00:00
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

The 17-year-old son of a friend said in frustration the other day, "There are too many computers in our school."

Sounds like heresy, you might think, especially in view of the Government's emphasis on the ratio of computers to pupils. You don't have to think hard to know what he meant, though. There's more to the quality of ICT in a school than how many machines they've managed to collect, and the first priority, always, is to make sure that existing equipment is being effectively used by well trained staff.

That's one reason for being cautious about schemes that put secondhand computers into schools - if it's just done in pursuit of sheer numbers, perhaps it would be best to wait, and take a good look at what the real needs are.

Another is that the machines may not always be the bargain that they seem. Old hands recall the early days of school computing, when there was always someone - a governor perhaps - who would say, "We're getting rid of a load of computers at work. I'll get the van to drop them off tomorrow." They inevitably brought little but grief and a lot of wasted time. In some schools you can still see one or two of them hiding in storerooms - strange objects, some of them, straight out of Thunderbirds.

All the same, there's a growing body of experience that says used computers have their place, provided you exercises some care, and schemes such as "Tools for Schools" are putting thousands of well refurbished machines into the hands of pupils.

First, though you need to be sure of the distinction between a computer that's secondhand and one that's been refurbished. Refurbishment means that the computer goes to a place where people who know what they are about strip it of its software, test it to make sure it's working, maybe give it a memory transplant and perhaps load up some appropriate software. Then, they sell the machine on for perhaps pound;50 or pound;100 to a school or a community group.

Or, perhaps, they might give it away completely free. Lynch Hill primary in Slough, for example, has a network of 16 refurbished computers that came free of charge, courtesy of the organisation "Free Computers for Education" - a worldwide network based on Rotary clubs that picks up computers from businesses, gets them refurbished and then gives them to schools worldwide as well as in UK. They like to provide a whole network to a school that hasn't so far got one. The school pays for the server and the installation, but the computers come free.

Tracey Thomas, Lynch Hill's ICT co-ordinator is realistic about what her network will and will not do, pointing out that, for example, it won't reliably run CD-Roms. "We can't do multimedia," she says. "But the advantage is that we can get a whole class down there doin basic ICT skills."

Another school that's bought a lot of refurbished PCs - 100 in fact, at pound;50 a time, from "Tools for Schools" (TFS) - is Hyde Technology School on Tameside. Here, though, the purpose was rather different. Says ICT Director Keith Parry: "We're well equipped with ICT, and we decided to use the TFS programme to help students at home. Of the 100 machines, we've loaned about 20 to members of staff who didn't have computers at home, and this has made a big difference to the quality of their work."

The remaining 80 of so machines, he explains, go out to students' homes, helping to bridge the IT gap. Mr Parry (the 1999 ICT Teacher of the Year) says: "If a student's doing a course involving ICT and they don't have a computer at home they are significantly disadvantaged."

A number of schools - Lynch Hill is one - are making use of refurbished computers (and, often, older computers that they already have) by linking them to servers which, effectively, take over the whole job, with the computers on the network acting, in effect, as dumb terminals.

Known in the trade as "thin client technology", many heads of ICT see this as a cost-effective way forward. If you think of going this route, though, it's apparent that you either really need to know what you are doing, or know a reliable firm who will help you. We're told that not all ICT suppliers fully understand thin client systems, especially as they are likely to be applied in schools.

It's true to say that, despite the obvious attractions, there are influential voices which raise, at the very least, a note of caution about using refurbished computers. The argument, usually, is not just about the "pig in poke factor" but that schools didn't really ought to be relying on someone else's cast offs. It was Stephen Heppell who once said he remembered a time when people broke into schools to steal computers, now the lorry coming up the drive is trying to dump them. And Dominic Savage, chief executive of Besa is on record as saying: "We have a problem with the concept of recycling. We would rather see schools using leading edge technology."

Schools, in the end, must decide this issue for themselves. There are undoubtedly those that do very well from recyclingrefurbishment schemes - and it seems likely that these are staffed by people who have done the homework, looked carefully at the schemes, and not had unrealistic expectations.

Gerald Haigh is a freelance writer and former headteacher The most comprehensive source of advice on this issue so far is in the form of a pamphlet produce by NAACE. It's published on their website at www.naace.orgPubrefurb1.htmlFree Computers for Schools Twice runs a network of refurbishment centres making use of a range of funding sources, and typically employing young people on "New Deal" and other schemes.Contact them at: SWAP (Save Waste And Prosper), 74 Kirkgate, Leeds LS2 7DJTel: 0113 243 8777Tools for Schools - a huge and effective refurbishment programme endorsed by government

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