Teachers should be trusted
Over the years, certain buzzwords or phrases have come to dominate thinking in educational ICT. "Embedding" seems to be the word of the moment. It is a metaphor from the gardening world, suggesting you are implanting something that will grow into a strong, healthy, vibrant plant. It sounds like a sensible strategy. After all, if a plant doesn't have strong roots, it won't flourish, and if ICT isn't firmly rooted into the curriculum, it won't develop.
However, in embedding ICT into schools, we are in danger of forcing things to happen rather than letting them develop naturally. In other words, we should be nurturing ICT development. In our rush to make things happen, we may end up with a plant that looks impressive, but which has roots that are too weak to provide long-term support.
There is now major concern that the huge investment in ICT has not improved SATs and GCSE results. Recent tabloid headlines, such as "Go back to books", are a comment on the Open University and Staffordshire University's research projects, which cast doubt on the impact of ICT on secondary school standards. You can see the problem and the Treasury must now be knocking on the DfES's door and demanding some answers - and its money back. The DfES suggests that only 15 per cent of schools are using ICT in an innovative and effective way; that is, they have "embedded" it in their practice.
It would be easy to blame this on the ICT supply industry, which has failed to give educators what they really want. But that would be nonsense, as Curriculum Online, the BETT show and research conducted by the British Educational Suppliers Association (BESA) illustrate. Neither is the solution to provide teachers with tools so they can create ICT content to use with their classes.
The big concern is for the 85 per cent of schools where ICT isn't innovative and effective, which the government wants to see quickly embed ICT practice through subject teaching. But a new Besa report called ICT in UK Schools, shows just how far things have progressed in a short time. We now have an infrastructure of 1.7 million computers, and broadband is here.
Teachers have told us of their need for interactive whiteboards, broadband and wireless networking. This suggests that having the "kit" is no longer the issue - it's what you do with it that is the challenge.
Only 13 per cent of primary schools had whiteboards in 2001. Today, the figure is 58 per cent, and will reach 74 per cent in 2004, by which time 93 per cent of secondary schools will have them, too. The good news is that 71 per cent of primary teachers feel confident with ICT, compared with 48 per cent in 2000. The figures for secondary teachers are 61 per cent and 41 per cent respectively. And figures for multiple access to online content have soared this year. In an average primary, 18.7 pupils can access the internet at any one time. In secondary schools the figure is 56, compared with seven for primaries and 35 for secondaries last year. This is due to government investment and support in ICT and the work of educational professionals.
One of the main reasons ICT has not moved as fast as the government would have liked is the curriculum and assessment system. Why should schools make radical changes to their practice when it does not either require or encourage them to use ICT on a daily basis?
One proposed government solution is to provide exemplar material for primary schools - a series of CD-Roms showing how teachers use ICT. The problem with this is that all classes are different because all children are different. Teachers spend their time developing individual approaches to teaching and learning for their children, and what works well in one class may not work in another. This is a good reason for not "kitemarking" software. You cannot say "this is the very best" or "this is a three-star product" as if we were dealing with washing machines, because the effectiveness of digital content in a classroom will depend on a myriad of extraneous circumstances.
Such mass embedding has never worked. Take the National Literacy Strategy, which produced a huge amount of materials used as if they were government edicts. Anything designed as an exemplar became the standard. It reduced originality and independent working and encouraged dependency. Instead of diversity of thought and practice, we got conformity. Replacing innovation and imagination was a one-size-fits-all approach.
So let's leave educators to build on what they have learned. Let's trust them to know what works best for them. They seem excited by the potential of e-learning. We need to build on this and treat them as adults, not spoon-feed them with strategies and content that may not work for them or, more importantly, their students.
Ray Barker is director of the British Educational Suppliers Association. He was talking to George Cole.