Time for action

18th October 1996 at 01:00
Imagine being expected to learn origami without scissors. Well that's how many teachers feel about information technology. They are expected to use it in their lessons, yet most of them have had insufficient training, if any, and are not even likely to have adequate access to up-to-date computers. And still people who should know better wonder why the majority of teachers don't use IT in their work.

It's obvious, and has been for some time, that teachers are the key to the successful use of computers in schools. Children have few inhibitions with information technology. Instead it is teachers who need the help, and there is not enough of it, which is why this Computers Update is dedicated to the missing majority (see page 6) - those teachers identified in government surveys who are still not coming to terms with technology.

As the election gets nearer, there is suddenly no shortage of politicians who want to bring schools into the information age. The Labour Party has its Stevenson commission of independent experts consulting a wide range of key players in education and industry. And behind the scenes the Government has, for some time, been taking soundings for a new IT initiative, raising alarm in some quarters of a pre-election spoiler for Tony "Superhighways" Blair. Two of the possibilities the Government is known to have considered - one for a big investment in Integrated Learning Systems, the other for a scheme to pass industry's cast-off computers on to schools - don't show the kind of long-term strategic approach that IT in education needs, one that should find agrement across party divides. The vague Tory Party conference pledge from Michael Heseltine was for an unspecified sum of National Lottery cash for a new "information and communication technology fund".

Politicians touting technology as a totem for a brave new world may stimulate headlines and talk-ins, but the education community has to beware an animal that finds it difficult to look forward further than three years, and, more culpably, will say almost anything in order to get the votes for that three-year mandate.

If the UK doesn't want to be left behind by countries acting on ambitious IT strategies, such as Singapore (page 20) and the USA, there are simple things a new government can do. Some cost little more than political will; the benefits of the others outweigh costs. Here are just a few: * Encourage and help teachers to have their own machines, as in places like the Isle of Man (page 26); * Consider providing trainee teachers with their own machines as has been done successfully at the Open University (see pages 10-11); * Identify grant money to be spent by schools on IT. When it not earmarked, hard-pressed schools will, understandably, spend it on other priorities; lIdentify the models of local support it wants to work with, a move supported by Heather Du Quesnay, the new chair of the National Council for Educational Technology, (see page 13); What is even more urgently required, however, is a coherent strategy for IT in schools, one that makes connecting schools to international networks a clear priority.

In recent years there has been a near-obsession at departmental level with garnering evidence of what actually works in educational IT. Sometimes it has sounded like an excuse for avoiding important decisions rather than a reason for taking them. For example, at this stage in the IT revolution, do ministers really need more evidence that home ownership of computers helps teachers use them in class?

In this pre-election period what is needed is a fresh look at the IT problems facing teachers and schools But whatever consultation or search for evidence takes place, it should be followed promptly by decisive action. Anything less would not be taking the problem seriously. Remember, other countries don't see this as just an education issue; they know it is vital for future economic prosperity.

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