Thieves are keen on laptops too

15th June 2007 at 01:00
Brian Lightman is headteacher at St Cyres comprehensive school in the Vale of Glamorgan

School and college leaders are looking forward to working with Carwyn Jones, the new minister for education, culture and Welsh language, to build on the important agenda over the past five years.

Having achieved widespread agreement on an ambitious but not unrealistic vision, for an education system that is well placed to be the envy of the UK, there is still much to do and to gain. But in one area, ICT, Wales has fallen far behind its English neighbours.

English schools have received substantial specific grant funding for software and hardware compared with us. New headline-grabbing proposals sound attractive but let's focus on Plaid Cymru's proposal for pupil laptops. This idea would undoubtedly be popular among its 11-year-old recipients. However, before committing to the cost, which the Association of School and College Leaders Cymru has calculated at pound;10 million, consider the pitfalls:

* software supplied could not be compatible with every school in Wales;

* the laptops would also not be compatible with many school networks, leading to enormous costs updating systems;

* the amount of technical support available to many schools is far below the level of the rest of the public sector, let alone the private one;

* schools would be completely overwhelmed with the volume of maintenance related to such vast numbers of laptops;

* laptops are extremely attractive to thieves.

Several years ago the Assembly government generously provided each headteacher with a laptop in a similar initiative. It came loaded with basic software but no back-up disks. The machine was of a basic specification and consequently had to be replaced after a short time at the school's expense.

In view of the expected three-year life of a PC nowadays, one wonders whether the government's laptop policy would include the cost of replacement every three years. I think I know the answer.

School leaders know how important ICT is to our education system as we face unprecedented opportunities and challenges. To keep up-to-date we need to move quickly to agree a practical e-strategy, which has faltered over the past five years. This is a complex, challenging and long-term task which cannot be addressed with any quick fixes or one-off initiatives.

If the incoming administration can find an extra pound;10m for education, and sees the development of ICT as the priority, here are some suggestions:

* provide every secondary school in Wales with an annual specific grant of new funding to ensure it can afford a sustainable ICT strategy, giving all pupils on-site and remote access via a virtual learning environment.

* provide new funding for all schools to have technician support at the same levels as government departments and councils;

* provide new funding to set up one all-Wales ICT support service with the expertise to provide free, high-quality training across the whole spectrum of requirements.

The watchword for the new administration has to be delivery. Expensive white elephants, which divert already limited resources from other priorities, are precisely the kind of headline-grabbing initiatives Wales does not need.

They will derail us from the fast track to success. Politicians can only rely on our support if they stick to the challenging task of implementation, not headlines.

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