An early career blip could have made Dominic Savage unemployable. Instead Dorothy Walker meets the man who is helping to keep Britain at the forefront of educational technology
Back when he was a young graduate in electronic engineering, Dominic Savage made an odd career move. He decided to go on to study the dramatic arts. The unusual marriage of disciplines, he says, could have left him "useless for anything". Instead, he became uniquely qualified for a career in which he has helped create the world's most successful educational technology show. The seeds of the idea were sown when Savage began to recognise the educational potential of electronics.
Savage is chief executive of the British Educational Suppliers Association (BESA), the trade association for suppliers to education, which has existed in various forms for 70 years. His role earned him an OBE in 1997. He is also the man behind BETT, the annual exhibition which this year attracted a record 22,000 teaching professionals to London's Olympia exhibition halls.
The power of ICT first struck Savage 20 years ago. After a brief spell writing scripts for BBC schools programmes, he joined BESA in 1976, to take charge of its country-wide exhibitions. He worked alongside his father, John Savage, who was made the first full-time director of the organisation in 1972.
During the early Eighties, the Micro-electronics in Education Programme (MEP) was launched by the Government to introduce computers into schools. Savage, by this time BESA's deputy director, found himself riding the new wave of enthusiasm for its use in education.
So impressed was Savage, and so convinced that Britain had a lead in educational technology, that in 1983 he set up a BESA company, The Great British Micro Show, to stimulate exports of microcomputers and software to overseas education markets. "Most of the software only ran on Acorn machines which weren't standard overseas," he explains. "But people were very excited by the educational ideas behind micro software."
In 1984 Savage designed the BETT show together with exhibition organiser Timothy Collins, "with a clear focus on educational technology rather than edutainment". Since it was first staged in January 1986, drawing an audience of 7,500, BETT has gone from strength to strength. Now the world's largest educational ICT exhibition, it attracts a considerable overseas following, reflecting his belief that Britain still leads the world in its use of computers in the classroom.
"Britain is doing jolly well," he says. "It is easy to be swayed by publicity about particular developments in other countries. The entire island of Singapore, for insance, is wired for the Internet, but the average school is no further forward in what it is doing with ICT than we are in the UK. And I am pleased to say that UK software publisher Granada Learning is the largest supplier of educational software to Singapore."
Savage's view is reinforced by the latest annual BESA ICT survey, describing the situation as "vibrant", with the number of computers in UK schools now topping a million.
"I am delighted there is now funding for training teachers, and that money is being put into the National Grid for Learning. But the important thing is that each school establishes its own continuum of upgrading its facilities and training. In an ideal world, I'd rather see the money for ICT activities delegated to schools, so they could manage their own programs."
He speaks from first-hand experience. As chairman of the board of governors at All Saints Technology College in Dagenham, Essex, Savage has seen standards rise dramatically since the college was founded a decade ago, in an area "where expectations weren't high". "Results have improved, and we now receive letters from employers saying that our students have got really excellent skills!" he explains. "I am not saying that this is all down to ICT, but ICT has been important."
The college's resource centre, which houses a bank of networked computers, is a hive of activity from 7am. "It gives students the opportunity to get on and learn to develop skills themselves," says Savage. "You cannot restrict the use of ICT only to the classroom, particularly in an area where there are haves and have-nots."
Harking back to the "woolly thinking" he described in the Eighties, Savage says it is vital to keeping looking ahead at what needs to be achieved with ICT in future - and that theme will be introduced at next year's BETT. "It is easy just to look at the here-and-now," he says, "but we want to introduce features that show where we are all going. In particular, we'll be focusing on the skills that will be needed in five to 10 years' time, both in our industries and in the classroom."
So after all these years is Dominic Savage still turned on by technology? Yes. He says he is "surgically attached" to his Nokia Communicator, a mobile device incorporating mobile phone, Internet access and palmtop computer.
"Being overseas quite a bit, it's all about seamless communication. I still marvel at the experience of sitting on a bus in a traffic jam in Bangkok, receiving a fax and then reading it on screen as I had a hands-free converstaion with the sender! And I'm still human, because it does have an 'off' button."