Centralised IT approach sets international example. Warwick Mansell reports
It sounds like a headteacher's dream. Imagine not having to worry about getting someone to fix your school's computers when they break. Where every few years, the technology you use will be upgraded. Where every child and teacher is guaranteed computer access, and can log on to a network of teaching resources and management software, tailored to their needs. And it's all free.
Welcome to the Northern Ireland education system, which is now being seen as an international role model for the integration of technology into the classroom.
Since 2002, a 10-year, pound;500 million contract between the Department of Education and four technology companies has been providing computers, internet access and educational resources to all of Northern Ireland's schools.
This works out at 40,000 terminals, or one for every eight pupils. All primaries have had broadband access for the past three years; while in secondaries, this has been the case for the past year.
Educational software is screened by the body running the scheme, C2k (Classroom 2000), and then offered online. This software is available through an "intranet" for the entire province, from school, home or any library.
The public-private partnership contracts mean that when the equipment breaks down, the company has to fix it.
The difference in this approach from that taken elsewhere in the UK is its centralism. While a few local authorities in England and Scotland have provided technology to all their schools, in the main, heads organise it themselves.
Ulster's approach is already gaining admirers from Norway to Mexico. This is not surprising when you consider its advantages, the first of which is equity: each pupil is guaranteed a relatively high level of ICT provision.
With all schools using the same software and hardware, said John Anderson of the Northern Ireland e-learning Partnership, new online resources can be introduced across the province easily.
C2k says it has also benefited from economies of scale in getting the companies to sign up to a contract embracing all schools.
But even C2k's supporters admit that some secondaries in England are ahead of their Ulster counterparts in ICT facilities.
But C2k means that good ICT provision is guaranteed for all schools in Northern Ireland, said Mr Anderson.
Owen Lynch, chief executive of the British Educational Communications and Technology Agency, said that England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland took different approaches to ICT reform and each could learn from the others.