Will the National Grid for Learning see schools kicking the paper habit. Al Constantine reports
LEGEND has it that when Charlie Wilson, the self-styled Scottish ogre who took Rupert Murdoch's Times to Wapping, saw a journalist using a typewriter amid all the new technology, he picked the machine up, threw it through the nearest window and declared: "This is a paperless office, sonny. Dinnae let me see you using one of those in here again or I'll string you up." Or words that conveyed a similar sentiment.
Anyone who has been inside a newspaper office recently will know that the places proliferate paper - forests of the stuff. Wilson's words, like those of so many who pontificate authoritatively on the future, have been proved wrong.
The same thing is now happening to schools. The bosses at Sanctuary Buildings, which houses the Department for Education and Employment, believe that the new National Grid for Learning means schools can communicate with town halls, county halls or with Whitehall itself simply by using computers. The electronic medium is all: farewell paper.
To this end, 10 months ago a project was set up by the DFEE in Gloucestershire and South Gloucestershire to see if schools could cope in a world of Internet, email and websites rather than brown paper envelopes and piles of A4.
The trouble is, it did not get off to an auspicious start because neither of the chief education officers in the two authorities would have anything to do with it. And the reaction among schools has been fairly lukewarm. In fact, there was only one head who was unqualified in his enthusiasm.
"Excellent - a terrific time saver," is the verdict of Jim Abrahams, headteacher at Arthur Dye primary school in Cheltenham. "The DFEE mailing in an average month is ridiculous," he says, "but with this, I can log on, scan through the latest information and print out the bits of it I need.
"Pieces of paper," he adds, "have a habit of disappearing. You hand on documents for circulation among staff and it's very easy for them to go missing."
Arthur Dye, it must be said, is a school that boasts a long history of commitment to information and communications
Headteachers, secretaries and governors in the other 19 schools taking part in the pilot project have, in almost every case, hedged their bets by opting to receive both the hard copies and electronic versions of the latest documents. One suspects that, while it may prove relatively easy for the DFEE to persuade schools to give the project a try, convincing them to relinquish their hard copies altogether will be a wholly different kettle of postage stamps.
"If you print things off yourself, then the school is picking up the cost and I think there's an important issue there," said Liz Ramsay, headteacher at Queen Margaret primary school in Tewkesbury. "I find I often need to print documents off to distribute them - and you can't highlight or makes notes on a screen, can you?"
Her concern about schools taking on the burden of printing costs is voiced by the other pilot schools. Invariably, they report, if documents are relevant, then multiple copies will be needed for heads of department, co-ordinators, governors and so on. Schools can either print these off themselves and incur the cost or else revert to the free copies
available by post in the time-
But officials spearheading the implementation of the paperless dream eschew the question of added cost to schools and suggest the project's principal motives were always about organisational efficiency, storage and speed in the transfer of data.
By spring 2000, the DFEE should be ready to launch a full-scale, nationwide publishing service. It also states that by 2002, administrative commerce between education bodies and government agencies "should cease to be largely paper-based".
Meanwhile, the fundamental difficulties faced by schools - especially in the early stages - make the Government's plans seem very ambitious. Some schools have already abandoned the project, either for lack of the
necessary hardware, technical expertise within the school or back-up from the local education authority or pilot scheme administrators.
"We tried it for a term," said Dave Powell, head of ICT at Tewkesbury foundation school, "but we found we just weren't technologically up to it."
The main problem, he maintained, is that to make the project work efficiently would require multiple access to workstations, which most schools don't yet have. If the idea is to promote "onward electronic circulation" to other teachers, heads of department or governors, then they, too, will need to be logged on.
It is a view shared by Fiona Montacute, former ICT advisory teacher and now head of Randwick primary school near Stroud.
She also opted out of the pilot at an early stage, believing it was unfeasible with the school's current levels of provision. Georgina Hill, Randwick's school secretary, also warned of an exasperating period of "limbo", in which the school suffered a technical breakdown with its Internet connection while postal deliveries of documents had also ground to a halt, leaving the school with no documents at all. "We're back on the hard copies now," she said resignedly.
To download documents quickly, you need fast connections. Those schools that have ISDN lines (which allow for quick online communication) tend to place them in communal areas, such as the school library, making their availability for administrative purposes even more limited. While some more confident headteachers are making use of lap-top computers, many concede that they are not at home with the new technology and, either way, they are finding paper a hard habit to break.
Gerald Love, headteacher at Blackhorse primary in Downend, whose computer is "broken down" at the moment, says he is now relying heavily on the hardware and the computer literacy of school secretary, Michelle Ashton, to keep the school on-side in the initiative. He explained that the school recently lost out in a competitive bid for some new computers, which will no doubt prolong their frustrations.
"There are too many half measures in all this," said Mr Love. "If the government is committed to this, let's see them put the hardware up-front and provide proper training through the LEAs.
"I really think it's imperative we take this route . but until we get the equipment in place, we're not really going to get to grips with it."
So what of the prospects for a national network by 2000 and schools fully electronic by 2002? "Looking at the piles of paper on my desk," said Liz Ramsay at Queen Margaret, "I find it very hard to imagine."
Special thanks to John Shannon, St Peter's Docks CE school in Tower Hamlets, east London for technical advice on EASEA
WHAT COULD BE EASEA? ONLINE ACCESS TO THE DFEE
The GloucestershireSouth Gloucestershire pilot is called Electronic Access for Schools and Education Authorities (EASEA). It is now open to all schools nationwide. If you want a taste of how easy it is to receive documents by e-mail, try following these instructions (at the moment, the electronic service from the DFEE does not replace the hard copies you usually receive in the post):
1. Log on to www.easea.co.uk
2. Choose registration page
3. You will be asked to provide the code for your LEA (three digits) and for your school (four digits).
These seven digits must be typed without spaces, and you will also need your school postcode.
4. You will need to choose a user name and a password and to remember these for logging on in future.
5. Next you can choose from a list of Key Stages and from a list of areas of DFEE documentation relevant to your school.
Here, you simply click on each box relevant to your particular school, for example, school management, examinations, maths, literacy, and so on.
This will create your own personalised in-tray which will contain only data relevant to you.
6. When you have logged on successfully, the DFEE will send you an e-mail to confirm that everything is in order.
You will then receive an e-mail message automatically whenever new documents relevant to you have become available.