The threat of a good example

22nd March 1996 at 00:00
On March 9, United States President Bill Clinton and Vice President Al Gore were "pulling cable" at San Ygnacio Valley High School, Concord, California, to connect the school to the "information superhighway". Getting their hands dirty was a public endorsement of NetDay 96, in which thousands of volunteers and businesses pledged to help wire all the state's 12,000 schools (and 20 per cent of their classrooms) into the global networks by the end of the year.

How many British politicians could you imagine doing likewise - other than for a high-profile photo opportunity?

Five years ago, computer experts were talking about the importance of networking and the day when schools would be able to tap into a global computer network of mind-boggling resources. Not many people paid attention, however, because they were talking technical gobbledegook like megabytes, megahertz and bandwidth.

Since then, the explosion of information on the Internet has shown the experts to be right. And this is probably just the beginning: as the technology improves, the multimedia elements will follow.

Sadly, many schools are in a weaker position than ever to exploit them. There is no longer a requirement for schools to spend some of their government grants (GEST) on information technology, and a survey by the British Educational Suppliers' Association indicates that spending has already fallen. Britain's telecommunications policy inspires little confidence, despite attempts by Oftel boss Don Cruikshank (see page 8) and the Labour leader Tony Blair to unblock the log-jam.

More worryingly, the lynchpins for successful IT in schools - teachers - are getting little help. IT in teacher education is still insufficient, and local authority support is weaker than ever. Despite insisting that teachers use computers in teaching, the Government does nothing to help them own them, even though its own research, from the 1994 portable computer pilot, showed that ownership increased classroom confidence and competence.

Self-employed workers can get their accountants to claim tax allowances for purchases of the tools of their trade. So why can't teachers be allowed to reclaim tax to help them buy their most expensive tools - computers.

As the general election approaches, politicians should be encouraged to promise to help schools exploit the opportunities that are becoming available through IT (see page 4), give children access to communications in school, and provide teachers with their own technology.

So far, the Government's efforts are not as impressive as they seem from its public relations. The hype surrounding the launch of its Education Superhighways pilot projects (see pages 10-11) concealed the fact that most of the projects were already up and running - largely paid for by industry, not government. The Department for Education and Employment only put up Pounds 500,000 - a 20th of the Pounds 10 million price tag - and that was for evaluation.

Money isn't the only factor missing from the IT-in-schools equation - only 1 per cent of the UK education budget is spent on IT - it also needs a creative and imaginative national policy.

The crucial element, however, is leadership, and Clinton and Gore, in making such public practical and symbolic gestures, are showing the way.

Merlin John. Editor, Computers Update NetDay 96 Web address:

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