Stop this IT madness

10th March 2000 at 00:00
The older ones among us will perhaps remember the record producer George Martin working with the inimitable Peter Sellers on a comedy record involving an Irish traditional music band where, to a background of drinking and fights, the music gets faster and faster until everything goes bang.

I am reminded of this when I see how schools are struggling with implementing IT here and mapping IT there and wondering how to pay for it all - bearing in mind that IT is one of the biggest capital and consumable budget-suckers imaginable. It is a technological Topsy fed by myopic, squawking computer buffs at every level. They are Philistines who produce hideously misspelt and ungrammatical memos and letters on their own computers, then try to insist that we encourage classrooms full of children to do the same and call it coursework.

Unless we step back and do that of which we are sensibly capable, and not that which Bill Gates et al would have us believe we need, the IT monster will suck us dry.

I know all about how difficult it is for schools to "deliver" mass IT in the way that they deliver mass English or, say, mass science. I teach IT but I sometimes wish I didn't. I know a secondary school whose 1993 Ofsted report said that one of the computer rooms was "hot, uncomfortable and a poor learning environment". Seven years on the only thing that has changed is that everything is seven years older.

I know of a junior school where, in order to pay due respect to the brave new world that must incorporate IT into absolutely everything, a whole class had t be mobilised like an army of ants to trundle nine large trolleys containing PCs, printers and ancillary equipment, looking for all the world like drip-fed accident victims, into the classroom. I find all this bizarre and rather sad.

I have seen many traditional subject lessons wrecked and teachers lose control of their class because the computers decided, as computers do, not to play ball on the day.

I believe that IT is important and useful in schools for the mundane but not for the creative. Many of the people I have met who advocate IT for everything, from the children's reports through to a regularly updated school bulletin board on the intranet, have an entirely false perception of its value. By mundane I mean basic skills in the main computer packages used in the workplace, being taught and developed on simple machines using simple software that is not updated every five minutes. In a secondary school, one room, a module of lessons, 15 computers - and probably without a network - could provide all the IT needed.

I sometimes conduct polls in my classes to see who has access to a modern PC at home. The figure is now up at about 85 per cent and rising, and schools cannot lead or even replicate that. Instead, they have the task of developing broad-based skills, knowledge and self-discipline. The IT monster, both fiscally and academically, is folly. Everything will go bang sooner or later.

Phil Harley teaches three subjects, three days a week in a secondary school, and works in junior schools on supply for the other two days


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