No 10 shapes the future of the learning grid

10th October 1997 at 01:00
No one expects Labour, after 18 years in opposition, to transform school technology overnight. But when a new government says its main priority is "education, education, education", and when it also promises to "hit the ground running", it is fair to ask what has been achieved in its first five months in office.

In some areas, it has acted quickly and decisively, such as the decision to give the Bank of England its independence. But anyone hoping for a similar gesture for technology in education will have been disappointed. There has been no high-profile statement from a minister stressing the Government's commitment to drive things forward, no appointment of an individual to co-ordinate or lead a programme of reform or development - and little guidance on how everything will be funded.

But it would be a mistake to think that little is happening. During the next few months, a number of government papers will be published. The tone was set by Tony Blair at Labour's conference last week when he pledged that by the year 2002, all 32,000 schools in Britain would have modern computers, software, Internet connections, and teachers who would know how to use it all.

Dennis Stevenson - who was asked by Labour before the election to examine the state of what he termed information and communications technology (ICT) in schools - has been asked to review a number of areas, including determining the role of the National Council for Educational Technology.

Stevenson has no doubts about what is required: "Government must put ICT as a central priority and not see it as an addition. ICT must become the fourth R." Many would agree, but wonder how it will all be resourced.

The Government has said it will follow the spending plans of the Conservatives and keep the basic and top rates of income tax unchanged. So where will the money come from? In July, the Treasury announced an extra #163;2.3 billion for schools, although how much of this will be used for technology is unclear given the short amount of time schools were given to present bids.

"There's no need for a massive financial investment," says Stevenson. "If you're talking about a laptop for every child that would be disastrous. It would cost you about #163;2 billion to set up and then #163;1 billion a year to replace or upgrade. We're not ready for that. We have got to have the teachers with the confidence and competence to use ICT. It's a two-stage process: the Government has to get its act together and ensure that the key agencies are all committed policy-wise, and improve teacher-


Stevenson also points out that more and more children have computers at home and that this resource needs to be harnessed - according to an Olivetti survey of 2, 000 British schoolchildren, one in three homes now has a computer, one in five has two or more, and one in five homes with a computer is connected to the Internet. "Most schools are spending a relatively small part of their budgets on ICT, but in five years, I expect this to be higher, " adds Stevenson.

About 6,000 schools are connected, roughly 20 per cent of the total. Many more would like to be but are put off by telephone charges. Earlier this year, the cable industry launched a package which offered a fixed-fee for call charges. The Department of Trade and Industry and the Department for Education and Employment were hoping to announce a scheme from BT that would give schools access to ISDN digital phone lines at a special rate, but the telecoms regulator OFTEL wanted to examine the plans more closely before granting approval. "We're still waiting for OFTEL to report back," says John Battle, Minister for Science, Energy and Industry at the DTI.

In July, the DFEE published its Excellence in Schools White Paper, which included proposals for setting up a "best practice" database for teachers, and using ICT to support teacher training. It also included proposals for a National Grid for Learning, a vast network to link schools, colleges, museums, galleries and other institutions. Later this year, the department will publish a White Paper on Lifelong Learning and a report on the Education Department's Superhighways Initiative - 25 Internet and on-line projects involving schools, colleges and industry. There are also plans to send schools guidance for good practice when purchasing equipment based on the evaluation.

Owen Lynch, the NCET's acting chief executive, says moves such as these will be welcomed by many schools: "The ICT situation in schools has been described as 'islands of excellence surrounded by an ocean of mediocrity'. I disagree. What you have are islands of excellence surrounded by an ocean of uncertainty and doubt. There's a feeling that there's a great opportunity, but schools are uncertain about how to get there. Anything which makes that path easier has to be welcomed."

Kim Howells, Minister for Life-Long Learning, says: "We don't want to re-invent the wheel. There are examples of excellent practice that have to be identified and used in a practical way to tell schools and colleges just what is possible and what advantages it will bring."

Some guidance is already available: Nortel's ambitious long-term Learning in the New Millennium project offered advice for teachers, parents and policy-makers when Chris Smith, the Secretary of State for Heritage, launched phase two of its cable project earlier this year.

The Government is pressing ahead with its aim to improve the technology skills of qualified and trainee teachers. In July, Smith's department published a White Paper stating that Lottery funds would be used to train and support 500,000 teachers. Kim Howells describes this move as very important. "I'm no longer worried about the difficulties that come with trying to ensure that schools have affordable connections to ISDN or cable," he said. "The hard bit is what you do with it, and ensuring that the development of proper software and practice is as totally open as possible so teachers can have a real impact on how IT is used in the classroom."

Howells says that he has been encouraged by the enthusiasm of teachers towards technology: "I haven't found any resistance, but there is some nervousness amongst teachers about whether they will be able to master the grammar and techniques of ICT." He admits that some teachers may be more concerned with books or leaking roofs. "It makes sense to fix a leaking roof before installing computers, but in the bidding for the extra funding available to education, many schools and local authorities have asked for ICT equipment, rather than other alternatives."

Howells gives the example of a local authority which wants to create an Intranet (internal network) that could be used by schools to deal with a shortage of specialist teachers in maths and physics: "It has the support of the teachers within the authority who see it as a means of improving the quality of education in their schools." The Teacher Training Agency has been asked to develop a national curriculum for technology in initial teacher training, which will come into force from next September (see page 23).

The most ambitious plan is to develop a National Grid for Learning. The grid will initially focus on staff development and schools but, in the long term, will be extended to lifelong learning, at home, college and work. The grid will also have links with the Government's plans to set up study centres funded by the National Lottery, and the University for Industry. A consultation paper is expected to be published this month. Downing Street was expected to start consultations on the learning grid this week.

The Government has no illusions about the size of the task - or its cost. Labour sees its role as providing leadership and vision, but will not bankroll all of it. Tony Blair describes the grid as the biggest public-private partnership anywhere in the world. "We're talking to computer manufacturers, software manufacturers, systems companies and others about the part they can play in it," says Howells. "The Prime Minister is meeting Bill Gates [chairman of Microsoft] and we are talking to others too. The National Grid for Learning will be a multi-billion pound project and there's no way the Government can pay for it on its own."

One big idea is for schools and local authorities - either individually or in groups - to contract out their entire educational technology programme to a competing consortium. The winners would provide equipment, support, training and management. A consortium would, in effect, be a "one-stop shop" for technology in education, and would probably include a hardware supplier, telecoms company, software publisher and a training service.

Dudley Metropolitan Borough Council has been granted special status (see page 6) under the Public Private Partnership scheme to establish what is, in effect, a prototype grid, to start operating from next summer. Dudley is considering proposals from four competing consortia to take over its ICT programme for up to 10 years.

Further evidence of public-private partnership will come next month when the Government is expected to launch Net Year 98, an ambitious plan to link as many British schools as possible to the Internet by the end of next year. The Government would like to see all schools and libraries connected to the learning grid by the end of the year 2000, and for 75 per cent of teachers and 50 per cent of pupils to use their own e-mail addresses by then.

The Government says that schools should not see the learning grid as a substitute for investing in technology and training. Indeed, schools will be expected to increase their annual spending on technology substantially. They will also be required to produce a development plan for technology (available to school inspectors) to demonstrate their commitment to the grid before they receive any funding.

A lot of things are happening in ICT and education, but is the co-ordination there, and isn't there a need for a single figure to pull everything together between the various departments? "We have got a trouble-shooter in the form of Dennis Stevenson," says Howells. "This new Government has gone out of its way to ensure that there isn't a duplication of effort. I don't know what it looks like from the outside and perhaps we should explain that to people. "

Are tax breaks for teachers to buy their own computers still on the cards?"I know that [Chancellor] Gordon Brown is looking at ways of equipping schools. I'm a great believer that the best way to get teachers to gain confidence is for them to use their own computer," says Howells, "Teachers also have to feel that the whole thing is worthwhile and not a gimmick, but a genuine breakthrough in the ability to teach. Second, they've got to feel at ease with it."

So how would Howells sum up the Government's efforts? "When we came to power there was lots of expertise around, lots of good intentions, but tremendous confusion at the centre. There was also no co-ordination. You had ministers who didn't have a clue about how to use a computer and had never been involved in them, apart from appearing in front of TV cameras and pressing a button on a pre-arranged school visit. That, in turn, meant that the rhetoric was something of a lie and I don't think there was sufficient interest there at a personal or ministerial level. Consequently what should have been one of the great flagship projects wallowed around."

Labour, he adds, is seriously addressing the problem: "The Prime Minister is very keen that we get on with this project and I feel very optimistic that we're starting to get there now. But we've still got to find a way of funding it all."

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