The only priority: computer literacy for all

27th June 1997 at 01:00
New Labour, a new age for information technology in schools? The Labour Government comes to power with a large majority and huge expectations about what it could, and should, do to transform IT in education. Few would argue that Labour faces an enormous task. Over the past year, reports from the Office for Standards in Education (OFSTED), the Department for Education and Employment (DFEE), and the Stevenson Committee (see pages 4-5), which the Labour party commissioned, have painted a depressing picture.

The use of IT in schools is patchy, with some schools using it well to enhance teaching and learning, but many others either ignoring it or using it badly . Some have likened the situation to islands of excellence in an ocean of mediocrity. Research suggests that two-thirds of teachers do not use IT. A survey of headteachers for the BBC2 programme Computers don't bite revealed that heads are frightened of new technology, and 80 per cent felt that teachers lacked confidence in IT.

It is easy to see why this situation has developed. Lack of time, money and resources are obvious causes, but so, too, is a lack of incentive. Examination boards that are trying to ban calculators, for example, are unlikely to welcome word processing and the Internet. And a breakdown of local authority IT support agencies in many regions, plus increased competition between secondary schools, has resulted in many schools concentrating on improving their league table position (and buying IT hardware to impress visitors on parents' evening).

More importantly, there has been a lack of vision and direction from central Government, despite the vast amount of money spent on IT projects over the past 15 years or so. The irony is that some government-sponsored projects, managed by the National Council for Educational Technology (NCET), have provided a tantalising glimpse of what IT can offer education. Projects involving CD-Roms, portable computers and special educational needs co-ord- inators, using the Internet to communicate with each other, have been very productive.

There are heartening signs that the new ministers responsible for shaping Labour's IT programme - Chris Smith, Secretary of State for National Heritage, Kim Howells, Minister for Life-Long Learning at the DFEE, and John Battle, Minister for Science, Energy and Industry at the Department of Trade and Industry - are enthusiastic supporters of IT in education. But how will they transform their drive and commitment into real policies?

Ask Mr Howells what he sees as his priority and there is no hesitation: "It's simply to make computer literacy a basic skill. It's my view that if kids are not computer-literate, then it's almost as bad as being illiterate or innumerate. IT gives you access to so much in education, makes you more employable and, of course, commerce and society in general are becoming more electronics-led."

So how does he see the current situation of IT in education? "There are some terrific projects and pilot studies going on, but there's little cohesion and direction. The greatest difficulty is trying to make people understand that if we are going to turn our pledge to create a learning society into a reality, we have got to knit together many of the strands that are out there."

Over at the DTI, Mr Battle adds: "We are not staring at a blank piece of paper. We need to look at what's out there and drive things forward. "

One of the problems of the last administration was the apparent lack of cohesion between the DFEE and DTI, and the sense that they were often more like rivals than members of the same team. "Co-ordination has been pretty poor," says Mr Howells. "There's been a lot of money spent on high-powere d committees and, while they have produced some very good stuff, I have been appalled at the lack of co-ordination and lack of perspective. Things are very patchy and there are no real targets. I get very uneasy when I can't see things clearly." Both Mr Howells and Mr Battle say that their departments will work together, or, as Battle puts it, "There's joined-up thinking between departments and this will lead to joined-up action."

All three departments see teacher training as an urgent priority. Heritage has already announced plans to use mid-week Lottery money to fund IT training for teachers. "It's clear that teachers becoming computer-literate and handling IT is the key to all of this," says Mr Howells. "If teachers are reluctant to use IT, then they aren't able to pass it on to the students. There is a problem in teacher training that we have got to solve very quickly, otherwise the reluctance of teachers to embrace IT will sabotage all of our efforts." Mr Battle agrees: "It's no good putting a plug in every school if teachers haven't the skills or confidence to switch it on."

Many are calling for the Government to introduce some form of tax break or incentive to encourage teachers to buy their own computers. Howells is sympathetic to this view: "It's something we're asking the Treasury to look at." He adds that he is also "open-minded" towards the call for re-introducing the old-style Grants for Education Support and Training (GEST) that formerly targeted a fixed proportion of spending on schools IT.

Criticising the previous Government is one thing, but what does Labour plan to do? Has it set any specific targets, for example? Mr Howells says it has not: "Sir Ron Dearing is due to submit his report, which looks at some of the elements in teacher training, around early July. I've asked Dennis Stevenson to look at IT in education and come up with suggestions for the direction we should take. What I don't want are committees composed of the great and the good: we've had enough of those."

One target Labour has set is a National Grid for Learning, with schools, hospitals, libraries and colleges wired up to each other and to the Internet. The cable industry is already offering schools a fixed fee for unlimited connection to the Internet (see page 12), and earlier this year the Office of Telecommunications urged BT to do the same. Now OFTEL is considering BT's offer of cut-price, high-capacity Internet access for schools, but the Government is still working with BT and the cable companies on how an NGL could be established. A White Paper is expected later this year.

Mr Howells is unequivocal about how such ventures will be funded: "It has to be a mixture of public and private funding. I can't see anything else. If we don't invite the private sector, it can't be done. What's more, many of the most exciting IT projects are taking place in the private sector, with companies such as Ford, BP and British Aerospace using IT to educate their workforces. "

Mr Battle sees the Schools On-line project, which involved the DTI, private-sector companies and Anglia Polytechnic University's Ultralab, as a possible blueprint for the future. "Keeping up with IT is expensive, and we don't want to hold back kids in hardware and software terms," he says. "That's why we don't want kids to have second-hand cast-offs. We need a partnership between schools and companies, and it's in the interest of industry to support this because they get people who are IT-literate. "

Battle says he is aware of the dangers of some schools not being able to attract sponsorship: "We don't want to put the burden on to schools. We will encourage companies to reach out to schools rather than schools having to send out letters." Mr Howells says he is keen to support the UK's educational software industry. "The message is that we have got to become the brokers for this stuff, and that if we don't fill this potential market, the Americans will. Virtually all the business software is American.

"We have the ability to produce a lot of the software product required. Someone has to kick-start it and there has got to be a general acceptance that we won't remain competitive unless we embrace IT. So, yes, we are very much for supporting the UK software industry."

He also wants to see greater communication between schools. "I've seen some great projects and some very good teachers, but there is a huge gap and a sense that there are an enormous number of wasted opportunities out there. Fortress walls have being built up between educational institutions,and I think our planned University for Industry [see page 10] will help to break some of them down. School students are not being informed enough and inspired enough by what is an exciting technology. It's a great shame and it's symptomatic of this very divisive spirit of competition between centres of education. We've got to stop being precious about what we have and start sharing. People have got to be prepared to co-operate with others or there will be trouble. "

But what about the have-nots, who cannot afford a computer in the home, let alone an on-line account? "I feel very passionate about this," says Mr Howells. "A huge tranche of pupils and adults feel that education holds nothing for them. IT can play a part in helping to redress this, and give people the skills that will make them more employable."

He is enthusiastic about community projects, such as a scheme that has put computers into the Metro shopping centre in Gateshead. He also wants to see a stronger careers service in schools. "All too often the careers department is just a cardboard box in the library. But it should be a network to other schools and colleges, and to clubs and pubs." And what of his own personal vision of the future? "I want to see all members of society with the appropriate IT skills as part of my role to encourage life-long learning."

Mr Battle likes to quote Einstein who once said: "Imagination is more important than information. " Let's hope that the imagination and drive of this new Government will result in an IT landscape that is very different from the one we have today.

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