Resist the pull of big players

11th May 2001 at 01:00
Stand by for phase two of the Government's National Grid for Learning (NGFL). This ambitious project to connect all schools, colleges and libraries to the Internet and to train all teachers and librarians to exploit it fully for education has been imaginative and impressive in its scale. But it's due for a serious makeover before it enters its next phase. And herein lie many dangers, not least of which is the fact that the Government could, naively, create a situation where the big players such as the BBC and Granada become dominant (p4).

What has this to do with teachers and students? Yes, it's in the commercial domain, but what happens next will determine the quality of the materials available for the curriculum, and the effectiveness of the environment in which they use them - the networks. So far, computer access in most schools has been slow, disappointing even, and the availability of good interactive content (software and materials) has a very long way to go to catch up with book publishing, for example.

As far as schools are concerned, they will be happy to have quality materials available for them free of charge online, and they will understandably be not so keen to buy anything (this will be Government-approved material after all). Most of them will be unaware that the very people who created their favourite curriculum software program have been elbowed out of the market.

What may appear to teachers and parents to be a purely commercial issue - who supplies the content - is one that determines what they have access to, and the obvious danger is that it could shut down the small, innovative software houses. Quite rightly, the Government is consulting. And its spin on the recommendations made by consultants NM Rothschild indicate that it wants to bring in the commercial world to help. One obvious level where this should help is in redesigning and simplifying the welter of often boring and uninspiring government and quango websites. But if you delve into the report (see for more), an element of naivety that could lead to a possible privatisation of the NGFL, along with monopoly provision - not the free market that schools experience with most other products they have to buy.

In this pre-election period the Government should be extremely careful to build on its achievements. Our survey at the Education Show (p4) shows that teachers are positive about the NGFL and ICT in the curriculum, but they need support and breathing space to consolidate the changes. Any damage to the small publishers and suppliers that make up a vibrant UK educational ICT community, for whatever well-meaning reasons, will certainly not help.

Merlin John, TES Online editor

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