Wanted: heads with hard drive

27th June 1997 at 01:00
Ben Gilford is impatient with those who fail to grasp the opportunities information technology offers schools - especially those who wax lyrical about it and know nothing

Let's paint it in primary colours. We are going nowhere in education and learning until we realise that the distinguishing mark of successful schools in the future will not be whether they are comprehensive, grammar or grant-maintained but how well they can develop the ability to innovate; to create successful relationships with parents, to make mutually enriching relationships with business and above all to be places where the main subject is to learn about learning.

In order to do all of that, information technology will have to be at the core. It is a truism that a school will not be successful with IT unless the headteacher understands the contribution that IT can make to learning. How many headteachers or prospective headteachers have a real insight into the transforming ability of IT?

Seymour Papert made the point in his book The Children's Machine that a teacher time-traveller coming in from the 17th century would find it very easy to fit into a school. A doctor from the same period would be baffled by the modern hospital. Why have schools remained impervious to change? The use of information technology to make school a more relevant experience will not be achieved until those who direct schools can see what is necessary.

"Every headteacher will have an appropriate qualification before taking up the post of headteacher," pronounces Labour's agenda for change. Will that include IT?

Mingling with a group of people recently who hoped to become heads, there were people who could use a computer to word process, to do a spreadsheet. There were people who could mouth IT platitudes, people who could talk for two minutes on video-conferencing, the Internet, schools without walls. There were even those who would invest large amounts on possibly controversial integrated learning systems just on anecdotal evidence without reading the evaluation and the research.

There was no one fired by this technology, no one who could see that it was more than a technical advance, no one who could take IT advances and blend them with their own vision of learning, no one who could see that IT was going to be the nervous system of new ways of learning, no one who could see that it was a challenge to the very fundamentals - to the very structure of the way that we transmit culture and information and values across the generations and across boundaries. Worst of all, most of them did not see it as their role: their task was to manage. It didn't apparently matter that they did not understand what they were managing.

Unfortunately, we have a culture in the UK that is anti-technology. In most of our minds the pernicious split that manifests itself as GNVQ and A-levels, vocational or academic, grammar or secondary modern, is there in some form or other. It is part of British life. Parity of esteem? In your dreams.

Technology is seen as the route to vocationalism, getting your hands dirty. Many organisations that are supposed to evangelise have leaders who privately boast about their lack of ability in the technology that they recommend to the rest of us. How many leading politicians understand the reality beneath their rhetoric? How many of them have had their lives and working practices changed by technology?

Sometimes it is easy to believe that our schools are now learning-free zones. The philosophy and issues of learning are something discussed in colleges or universities. The average head is now more likely to have read Charles Handy rather than Negroponte, Perelman or Papert.

The people in schools with the day-to-day responsibility for IT often cannot see the way forward. The head who has fallen among nerds is not going to build a school with vision.

We don't want heads who will be in conflict with their IT co-ordinator about whether the school uses Lotus 123 or Excel. We want heads who will see that this technology will be the sinews and veins of their organisation. We need heads who can see that research and development is as important to education as it is to business.

We want heads who will ask the awkward questions. Why are we using IT in English? How can we achieve better learning outcomes by using IT? How does industry's spend on IT training compare with ours? Why doesn't IT make the life of the average teacher easier? How has so much of business improved its efficiency and its quality by the use of IT?

One large business has appointed a director of learning. Shouldn't a school be looking at such a strategy? The flow of information into schools has become torrential. We are drowning in it. Is it being managed for the benefit of learners? How do we deal with it? Do we have the right posts? Do we have the right training? How many systems and routines are in place because they've always been there?

The new heads will be people who will get off the tramlines, think radically, and go back to first philosophies. They will be people who can use computers to inject energy and life, to remake learning and give it an appeal to children who come from an outside world that is seething with learning opportunities into schools that look increasingly bleak, barren and irrelevant.

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