Time for some joined-up thinking

27th June 1997 at 01:00
It's nice to start with a clean copybook, and that is what this Government has with information technology in schools, or ICT (the extra C is for communication) as they now want us to call it. While the Tories ran out of ideas and lacked the will to draw up a clear strategy, Tony Blair's class of 97 starts with the makings of one - the Stevenson report, (see pages 4-5).

If you want your jam today, you would have found Stevenson disappointing. No commitment to targets or costings, and something that could sound, to the cynical, dangerously like a future-proofed escape clause - the observation that more hardware will not solve the problem. What was refreshing about the report was the recognition of the need for a strategy, the realisation that if there are eight buttons to make IT effective, then pressing fewer than, say, six together will not be successful. Worse still, pressing just one could waste money and energy. For example, sending teachers for training when they have no IT resources to practise what they have learned is folly. Yet it happens.

While the new Government is committed to Stevenson, it can trade for a while on goodwill. What it mustn't do is fail to meet a general expectation of change. The need to turn the National Council for Educational Technology into a more independent, high-profile organisation whose expertise gets through to the classroom is a high priority. However, the way the NCET has been stymied over the years by the Department for Education and Employment, and sometimes by its appointees, does not inspire confidence.

Removing the council's chief executive, Margaret Bell, just before the election, and the subsequent failure to find a replacement along with new council members, hasn't done much for morale among long-suffering employees who are expected to inspire teachers. There's also a danger that the Government's rethink on support could result in the merger of the NCET with another organisation, such as the Teacher Training Agency, where its potential could be lost.

Kim Howells' concept of "joined-up thinking" (see interview above) sounds interesting: departments working together to effect change. More's the pity it wasn't in evidence last month when David Blunkett and BT were about to announce an "intermediate" offer to allow schools cut-price access to high-capacity telephone lines (known as ISDN). Up jumped the telecoms regulator, Don Cruikshank, the OFTEL boss, like a seaside Punch to embarrass his BT Judy in front of the Secretary of State for Education, who had been lined up for the launch of the ISDN offer at a London secondary school. Any school that might have wanted to take advantage of the offer to ensure a connection for the start of the new school year will now have to wait.

It is two years since Tony Blair's announcement of a deal with BT to create free connections for schools, libraries and the health service to a high-performance fibre-optic network - the so-called education superhighway (see page 12). So the parties involved have had plenty of time to develop some joined-up thinking. The trouble is that it doesn't look as if they can, such is their mutual antagonism. Education's interests are eclipsed by the players' quests for markets, profit and influence. There has been very little generosity for schools in this arena.

By the time these organisations get an ISDN offer to schools it is already a "so-what" technology. Instead of getting excited about the kudos of providing the Internet and high-performance networking, politicians should now start getting anxious about how people will feel if they fail, or if there are unnecessary delays. Many other countries are already well on the way to getting connected, and are doing so with an openness and enthusiasm that reflects badly on those responsible for IT in UK schools.

In the early Seventies, believe it or not, many homes didn't have bathrooms. So improvement grants were made available. Just as you would expect a home to have a bathroom, all schools should have basic services. This is what communications is already becoming for schools - a basic service, part of the infrastructure. And the time to provide that infrastructure is right now. As Dennis Stevenson tells The TES (pages 4-5), "For crying out loud, we have this very rich country, this huge telecommunications industry and it is a tiny mathematical change to enable this to happen." If the new boys and girls want to keep their copybook clean, they need to develop that joined-up thinking. And if the telecommunications rules get in the way, change them.

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