When a PC is non-PC

1st March 1996 at 00:00
Arnold Evans reports on how a contract award has angered Welsh schools. A government scheme to provide Welsh primary schools with multimedia equipment has caused a furore - and, since the decision was made on the advice of the National Council for Educational Technology (NCET), it should give teachers throughout the UK cause for serious thought.

In most respects the Pounds 3 million Welsh Office MultimediaPortables Initiative (WOMPI) is a copy of similar successful projects carried out in England. But in Wales the schools that chose the multimedia option (93 per cent of some 1,700 schools) will all receive Research Machines Pentium Multimedia PCs and no choice as to which 10 CD-Roms come with it.

It is understood that this is the first time one supplier has been awarded 100 per cent of a contract under such schemes. Since the decision was only made after the NCET had conducted a lengthy assessment, RM can rightly regard it as an unequivocal vote of confidence. But the decision has upset not only other suppliers, but also teachers and the professionals in charge of promoting IT in schools. A conference of the National Association of Advisers for Computers in Education (NAACE) has demanded a radical overhaul of the way decisions about Government IT schemes are made (see last week's TES).

Meurig Williams, head of MEU Cymru, the Welsh Microelectronics Unit, describes RM's windfall as "a cruel kick in the teeth for Acorn". Conspiracy theorists in schools go further and discern an attempt to deliberately undermine Acorn's predominance in the primary market. The more sanguine believe it's merely another cock-up - and indicative of a "mummy knows best" mentality that increasingly characterises the Government's educational decisions.

Teachers in 460 of the primaries have another axe to grind: lessons in these schools are conducted exclusively in Welsh. Teachers are incensed that they have been lumbered with a PC when virtually all the available Welsh language software runs only on Acorn. The fact that a decision that will have the greatest impact on Welsh rural schools is the result of a recommendation made by a quango in Coventry only adds insult to the injury.

More than 30 per cent of Welsh primaries are already committed to RM so it is unlikely that they have complaints. But the remainder are still fiercely loyal to Acorn's Risc OS system. "It can't be matched for the quality of software it supports," says Fred Gambie, IT adviser for Mid Glamorgan.

Welsh primary schools, he explains, are smaller than those in England and so find it that much more difficult to support a mix of machines: "We can only promote the use of IT in our schools effectively if we are prepared to give teachers the tools they ask for."

Instead, they have been given a system which will be completely new to many of them. "They have made the difficult move from BBCs to Risc OS and now, just as they are gaining confidence with that, they are going to have to start all over again," says Lyn Williams, a deputy head at Treforest Primary in Mid Glamorgan.

RM will offer introductory training and Gest money has been set aside for in-service training. Lynn Moates at RM explains: "This was always intended as a multimedia scheme so teachers were inevitably going to be presented with a range of software which they would find unfamiliar. We are in a strong position to help them, having the educational expertise gained by our involvement in previous English schemes."

But there is another major bone of contention: the hardware and CD-Roms which Rod Richards the Under Secretary of State for Wales says were "provided free", will cost Acorn schools at least Pounds 300 in additional software if they are to make effective use of it. Mr Richards makes a point of emphasising that the scheme is "a drive to raise standards, particularly in the basic skills of literacy and numeracy" - but the package doesn't contain as much as a word processor.

"Children might be able to run multimedia, but they won't be able to use it in conjunction with other software and there's certainly no chance of being able to afford a printer or a modem," says one irate acting-head. "It's going to be a cuckoo in our nest. Every pound we spend on this one computer, could have been spent building up our Acorn software which we could use on all of our other machines."

Meurig Williams at MEU Cymru expresses a generally held fear: "With so many other things to worry about, teachers aren't going to have the time to learn Windows and the RM is going to end up at the back of a cupboard."

MEU Cymru oversees the provision of Welsh language software. Its lengthy catalogue, which contains translations of many of the best known Acorn titles (Genesis, Impression etc), has only a handful of Windows products. "Over the years we have built up an excellent working relationship with British software houses who allow us to customise their programs. The way the code is written makes it relatively easy and cheap to incorporate the Welsh text."

The Risc Os interface has also been translated, so it's possible for pupils to use computers without ever having to resort to English. This is crucial for teachers anxious to reinforce the vital message that Welsh isn't only a language of hymns and eisteddfodau.

It's a national curriculum requirement that pupils in all the principality's primary schools must spend some time studying Welsh; but, remarkably, none of the scheme's CD-Roms are in the language. "It has highlighted the shortage of multimedia software in Welsh, and the Welsh Office must invest in producing a selection of titles," says Meirion Prys Jones at the Welsh language Board.

Plans to do this are already under way, but Welsh teachers are going to have to wait longer than is really necessary, according to Robin Drewett of AVP, a software house actually based in Wales. He is "flabbergasted, mystified and gobsmacked" by the exclusion of a Welsh version of AVP's Victorian Britain from the NCET's top ten.

The English version is geared specifically to a strand of the curriculum, has received universally good reviews and was chosen on both the English primary CD-Rom initiatives. Since then AVP has improved the graphics and sound, and translated it into Welsh. And suddenly, it's not good enough.

Other suppliers are outraged by the choice of titles. Mike Collett, chairman of the Educational Software Publishers Association says: "The NCET has absolutely and clearly chosen on grounds of cheapness and not gone for the packages that are most appropriate."

NCET technical director Fred Daly is keen to refute all the criticisms. "The choice of CD-Roms was made by a panel of independent reviewers most of whom were Welsh," he explains. And it was only after they had recommended the software (they were not told prices) that the NCET set out to assess the most appropriate platform. Abiding by published selection criteria, the NCET simply went through a painstaking procedure which would ensure that Welsh schools had the benefit of the best possible kit for the money.

Of course, the chances are that the advisers will - yet again - save the day by providing adequate training and the translators at MEU will burn the midnight oil. In the meantime, the acting-head with an aversion to cuckoos has his own plan. He intends to buy an Acorn multimedia system as soon as he can raise the cash. "Want to buy a Pentium 75 MPC?" he asks. "In excellent condition. Unused."

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