When Norman Crawford was a schoolboy he was not allowed to join the school computer club. "It was run by our chemistry teacher, and only his best students were allowed in. So computers seemed to me like a dark, secret world."
That was back in the 1970s, and Crawford went on to uncover the secrets of ICT for himself, in his career as a teacher. Today, as head of ICT services at Tameside LEA in Greater Manchester, he is at the forefront of the drive to help schools make the most of new technology. For four years he has worked in partnership with schools to transform the Tameside ICT service into one of the best in the country, an achievement recognised in this year's Becta ICT in Practice Awards, in which Crawford was named runner-up in the Advice and Support category.
Crawford first discovered the power of ICT in the late 1980s when he was teaching English in a South Yorkshire school, and borrowed a BBC computer, complete with word processing software called EdWord. "I began to discover all the wonderful ways it would let you work with words. I was hooked."
He bought an Amstrad machine and desktop publishing software, and took them into school. "I mocked up newspaper pages based on themes from the novels we were studying. Columns would be left blank so students could finish stories."
In 1991, when Crawford became head of English, he created a computer suite next to the department. "Very soon it was booked to capacity. It certainly inspired youngsters, especially those who had problems with things like presentation."
He became an assistant head, with responsibility for ICT, before being appointed adviser and strategy manager for ICT at Tameside in January 2000.
Two weeks after he arrived, Crawford found himself in the midst of a damning Ofsted inspection: "The ICT service to schools was deemed poorer than in most authorities in the country."
Today, the service is rated among the best. And at the heart of this turnaround has been the principle that ICT should play a central role in school life. "ICT is just as important as literacy and numeracy. ICT should be at the heart of a school, with management information systems, good e-learning materials and access to work and resources, wherever pupils are."
One of his first decisions was to pull out of a regional broadband consortium. "At the time, few schools would have benefited, and we knew that, with funding coming from the DfES we would be able to put in broadband very quickly."
Tameside went on to become one of the first authorities to have broadband in every school, and the service is provided free, as one of the staples in a flexible support package which allows schools to pick and mix from an all-embracing range of services.
A new support programme provides teachers with laptops and interactive whiteboards as well as support from fellow practitioners. Crawford says:
"Sometimes there is a perception that ICT people only care about boxes and wires. But our consultants have been going out to teach lessons for the past four years, working hand in hand with schools."
Crawford's development team has just completed a new virtual learning environment (VLE) for schools, created with the help of Moodle, open source software which can be employed free of charge. This year will also see the completion of an online computer passport scheme for assessing ICT skills at KS 1,2 and 3, the successor to a scheme developed in 2001. "It includes fantastic tools for assessment, recording and reporting," says Crawford.
"We are currently investigating ways of sharing them beyond the borough."
His latest plan is Tameside TV, which will broadcast via the internet. An initial 30 programmes are being filmed over the summer, with topics ranging from exemplar lesson starters to demonstrations of the latest technology.
Tameside ICT in Schools: www.tameside.gov.ukschools_grid ictindex.htm