In the vanguard but not invincible

24th March 1995 at 00:00
Britain has set the pace for imaginative and comprehensive use of information technology in education. How did this happen, and have the conditions that made it possible been undermined? Stephen Heppell investigates.

It is early afternoon in a school in Belgium. A group of 17-year-olds are sitting down to begin a lesson in a room brimming with computers. They are studying the programming language Pascal and are working hard. Most of them are boys. Substitute Basic for Pascal and the scene could be from any UK school computer studies class of a decade ago. However, by 1993 (the latest year for which figures are available), programming had collapsed and did not exceed 2 per cent of total software use for UK year groups 1-11, peaking at only 3 per cent for year groups 12 and 13. What we have done in the UK, with unique success, is to move from studying the computer, to studying with the computer, all in a decade.

Since Maastricht, education has been part of European policy-making. Considerable sums will be invested in assisting further the mobility of students and teachers across Europe. As they move, the curriculum will often seem comfortably familiar, but in information technology the international contrasts are greater than anywhere else. In the UK the IT curriculum is arguably as far ahead as our modern language curriculum is behind. However, this is not a static situation and today's advantage can easily become tomorrow's millstone around a student's neck; almost half the total computer stock in our schools is already over five years old.

It is worth examining why computers in education have made good progress in this country. How much of that formula can be transferred easily overseas? How many of the conditions for our early success remain in place?

Mike Fisher is chief executive of Research Machines in Oxford and he has been looking hard at the German education system. He notes that IT in German schools is at least five years behind UK practice and suggests some reasons for this: he thinks that the German financial management model stands between rhetoric and reality. With minimal financial delegation to schools and budgets passing through first a regional and then a municipal structure, the purchasing cycle is some 24 months, which is a real impediment to change. Fisher also points to their lack of any tradition of after-school professional development. German teachers draw a clear line between contracted professional duties and other activity. The result is that the enthusiastic pioneer that has been so important to early UK progress is absent.

Bob Coates at Acorn Computers, who also has an interest in developing European education, says that the almost total absence of computers in German primary schools is not the result of a national lack of enthusiasm for technology; the penetration of computers into business is similar to ours.

Mike Aston, director of The Advisory Unit: Computers in Education, based in Hatfield, Hertfordshire, points to corners of mainland Europe where progress has been good. In Denmark and The Netherlands, for example, he says that, as in the UK, policy is in place to support the whole curriculum with computers. Indeed, the support materials being generated in Denmark are the best in Europe, he says. However, Aston considers that France is actually going backwards, with old technology networks and lack of direction from the centre.

This generally poor picture at national level does not mean an absence of exciting and imaginative projects at local or regional level. For example, although the overall picture in Spain is disappointing, in Catalonia dramatic progress has been made and the region stands alongside the best of Europe. Smaller but innovative local and regional initiatives can also be found in Sweden, Finland, France and The Netherlands. Apple's Global Education initiative (AGE) confirmed that where national boundaries were put aside through technology, there were large numbers of highly motivated schools keen, willing and able to develop learning schemes that showed imaginative and relevant use of technology across the curriculum.

Acorn's Bob Coates points out that, despite Germany's disappointing national performance, it was a secondary school from Hoesbach, near Frankfurt, that won The TES Newspaper Day competition in 1994.

Why did information technology in British education develop so well? Mike Aston suggests that it was partly the good fortune of having the right people in the right place at the right time. An early commitment by individuals at the BBC to micro computers was crucial.

We had some other advantages historically: UK teachers enjoyed a long tradition of curriculum autonomy. Staffrooms reverberated with years of debate about the shape and content of the curriculum; this freedom to experiment with the curriculum was a key enabler in creating the fertile conditions that allowed IT to thrive. In addition, UK teachers have always been comfortable with meeting each other and exchanging good practice, often in their "own" time. External support from advisory staff added a mentoring role.

Much of this practice is absent across Europe, which gave the UK some important early advantages. Sadly, the break-up of local authority advisory centres has coincided with a more tightly prescribed curriculum; our teachers now meet to discuss the complexities and practicalities of delivering that curriculum. All this suggests that we will now make less progress.

Across Europe, the more rigid the national curriculum structure, the less opportunity there has been for the kind of experimentation and innovation that help us to understand what works and what works well. For example, Switzerland's school structure with its intermittent morning, afternoon and even Saturday lessons (which make childcare more difficult) seems more geared to keeping women at home than to equipping a future workforce with the confidence to solve problems with computers.

Computers are a very long way from being embedded in the Swiss curriculum. But the experience of Briton David Gatley, formerly part of the IT support team of Essex local education authority, underlines the potential for rapid change. He works at the International School in Berne, a school outside the control of the local regional authority. His school has a mixed provision of Macintosh and IBM with networked CD-Roms, and Gatley knows exactly what he is doing. So does the local cantonal government which, despite the school's status, has contributed a 500,000 Swiss franc (Pounds 260,000) grant for curriculum development in what is a radical departure from the traditional separation of private and public schooling. Gatley was a product of the UK's beleaguered advisory system. His school is just one of many small but important centres of innovation across Europe that have learned from the UK's past success and, despite their lack of large-scale national innovation, have found the space and freedom to take up the baton of change.

David Gatley stresses the importance of good relationships with teacher-training establishments. Mike Aston and Mike Fisher also praise the teacher training establishments' research, their accessibility and their lack of an "ivory tower" philosophy. Bob Coates stresses the need for continued, high-quality teacher education. He worries that research programmes funded by the European Commission have focused too heavily on technological development without funding support for research into curriculumlearning implementation. He cites the POWER Project (Portable Workstation for Education in Europe), which Acorn is involved in, where the field trials will take place in only a handful of schools without the large-scale, in-depth study that the learning departments in universities could contribute.

Sadly, like space for teacher debate, autonomy for curriculum innovation and advisory support structures, our training colleges in their current form are disappearing too as teacher education in the UK is revolutionised. It is clearly arguable that most of the reasons for the UK's success in educational computing in the past are diminished by recent educational policy, particularly in England and Wales. There is also a danger that a stagnating UK policy could set back Europe too. For Coates, some of the current, often poor CD-Rom technology, and the controversial Integrated Learning Systems, have stultified curriculum development.

With luck, all this may prove to be irrelevant. The one common element across Europe is the way youngsters harness technology for their own use. The bulletin boards and Internet sites across Europe buzz with children's enthusiasm, and that, in the end, will be the main engine for change, regardless of national policy. If these technology-confident children are the start of a learning revolution in Europe, the debate will be about where, not how, it will take place. Learning in the home and the community could race ahead of schools, risking the loss of the accumulated wisdom and expertise of the learning professionals, our teachers.

* Professor Stephen Heppell isdirector of the Ultralab researchunit at Anglia University. Ultralab houses the National Archive of Educational Computing.

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