Technology on the brink
Last year the annual report by the Chief HMI for Wales painted a bleak picture of ICT in schools. In her own words, "in almost half of the schools poor equipment makes it difficult for pupils to use ICT across the curriculum".
Such reports inevitably date quickly because ICT is a field in which movement is swift and development is even swifter. A recent survey of the 22 local education authorities in Wales that I conducted for the BBC suggests that much has improved since the HMI report was prepared. Eighteen of the LEAs are very positive about ICT and are optimistic about the future.
The Chief HMI was no doubt justified in commenting that "pupils in about a third of primary schools use ICT competently in subjects across the curriculum" and that "opportunities for secondary pupils to use ICT across the curriculum vary substantially within and between schools". Nonetheless, we must remember the short time-frame in which ICT developments in Welsh schools have taken place.
When local government in Wales was reorganised four years ago, inevitably the focus was on simple survival. ICT in schools was, in some ways, left untended as priority was given to other, more pressing areas.
However, LEAs did manage to lay the foundations for the rapid progress that we have since witnessed. In 1997, the Association of Directors of Education in Wales (ADEW) set up a group that brought together the ICT managers and advisers from all 22 LEAs. This group began to create the ICT map for Wales, to compare facilities and establish priorities. It also opened a dialogue with the Welsh Office, and then with the new National Assembly for Wales in 1999. It quickly saw that it was possible, and indeed essential, to think of ICT in an all-Wales context. The great disparity in the size of LEAs made it necessary to work jointly (Cardiff, with a population of more than 340,000 is about six times the size of Merthyr Tydfil). The group also commissioned a survey of ICT provision that was carried out by the Wales Information Society. This indicated the rapid improvement in the provision of ICT to schools in Wales. It also showed clearly that the Prime Minister's promise that every school will be connected to the Internet by 2002 would be delivered. In contrast, it emphasised that different parts of ales faced very different problems. The needs of rural Powys were different from the south Wales coastal belt. For schools to avoid being divided into the "haves" and "have-nots" national strategies were needed. These findings then underpinned the subsequent debate.
The LEAs decided that developments in ICT in education would be speeded up and made cost-effective by joining in consortia. With the agreement of the Welsh Office, five consortia were established in 1999 to run for two years. Their brief is to examine best practice in the classroom; the use of telecommunications in teaching and learning; the potential for data exchange and the potential for development of quality on-line materials serving the needs of the Welsh language.
In December 1999, ADEW was invited to present evidence on ICT procurement to the pre-16 committee of the National Assembly for Wales. But the association also used the presentation to focus the Assembly members' attention on other important issues that the LEAs had identified.
We pointed out, for example, that the National Grid for Learning exercise must reflect developments in Wales. The NGfL, however, is not alone in this respect. Our underlying message was that any developments in Wales had to take proper account of not only the 3 "Cs" - Connectivity, Content and Competence - but a fourth "C" - Cymru.
Happily, the Assembly committee acted on our advice. It changed the ICT remit of its pre-16 committee and is now seeking solutions for schools that closely match Welsh needs. The Assembly committee has agreed to devise an all-Wales ICT strategy for education (which will be the subject of wide consultation) in time for the Budget discussions in late 2000. As part of this process it is working with LEAs, and noting the successes in countries such as Ireland, Scotland, Finland and the USA. With the backing of the Assembly, ICT has moved rapidly up the education agenda and will soon be giving our teachers and pupils the support they deserve.
This concerted drive towards excellence can be considered a triumph for the devolution agenda. We are moving rapidly away from the picture outlined by Estyn - a fact that should be reflected in future reports.
Neil Harries is the former director of education and leisure for Caerphilly County Borough Council. He was recently appointed expert adviser on ICT to the Welsh Assembly's pre-16 education committee, but the views expressed here are personal.