Where are you on the grid?

10th July 1998 at 01:00
To make the most of the Pounds 100m Standards Fund, schools need to start knocking their plans fortechnology into shape now, writes George Cole

HISSUMMER, many headteachers and information and communication technology co-ordinators will forsake the sunshine and focus on their school's ICT development plans. This is because the plans will form an important part of the bids for the Standards Fund awarded to local authorities earlier this year. This fund is being used to kick-start the National Grid for Learning.

This year's Standards Fund is Pounds 100 million (half of which comes from the Department for Educa-tion and Employment, the rest from local education authorities) and more funding for the grid is expected, though not confirmed, over the next three years.

Last autumn, education authorities were asked to submit bids for the funding and, in April, the Secretary of State for Education an-nounced the winners. Almost every authority received some funding - a handful have been asked to re-submit their plans - although what they received varied widely. Birmingham received the largest slice (Pounds 4 million) and the Isles of Scilly the smallest (Pounds 10,000), though, per capita, Staffordshire probably came out top with Pounds 2.5 million. The next stage is for the authorities to allocate the funding to schools, and many will base it on schools' ICT development plans. Some have given schools a lot of help in drawing up plans.

Cumbria, for example, produced an impressive document which was sent to all schools last autumn. It included background information on the grid, the Standards Fund bid and help in drawing up a draft ICT development plan. It even suggested that schools focus on four main areas: curriculum development, staff development, resources andcommunity links. Other authorities have not been so helpful, leaving many schools to fend forthemselves.

Alan Teece, general manager of ICL Educa-tion Systems, says schools should see the national grid for learning as a people project, not a computer project. "If you are bringing new ways of doing things into a school, it will affect the way people work," he says.

Chris Powley, local authority marketing manager for the leading educational ICT supplier RM, agrees. "The whole school should be involved in creating an ICT development plan. It's not something that can be imposed from the top.

"All school developments need to involve all staff because whatever you decide will have to be implemented by the teacher in the classroom," he says.

Teachers need to feel comfortable with ICT, says Nigel Ward, managing director of Granada Learning. He says it is important schools do not try to run before they can walk.

"You should be aiming to make cautious but optimistic progress. You are not going to be able to do everything at once, and it's going to take a long time before the National Grid for Learning gets established.

"It's better to buy a small amount and get everyone trained up for it, and then buy a little more."

Schools may be tempted to rush into producing their plan, but this could be a big mistake, says Mike Smith, professional officer of the advisers' organisation NAACE. "LEAs are playing a crucial role. Schools should be fully aware of what's happening and how their LEA intends to use the funding. "

Some authorities plan to allocate this year's fund to all schools in their area. Others are targeting a limited number of schools in the first year.

Birmingham, for example, plans to use the funding to develop the Birmingham Grid for Learning, which will connect 300 schools by the end of March 1999. Eighty-nine schools will also receive specially targeted funding under Birmingham's Success for Everyone, a programme designed to raise ICT standards.

"The key point of the national grid is not about getting the fastest network you can afford, but how ICT can improve learning," says Mike Kendall, Birming-ham's grid manager.

Cumbria will be using the Standards Fund to form links between the national grid and two existing authority ICT projects: Credits (the Community Regeneration through Developing IT Skills) and the Genesis intranet (internal network).

Credits schools are local ICT centres which provide adults with vocational courses. "These schools already have servers and networks, and we want to avoid unnecessary duplication," says Steve Moss, Cumbria's ICT adviser.

He adds that schools receiving grants are also expected to put in some of their own money. "They should not be using the grant for things they are already doing. We typically ask schools to make a 20 to 30 per cent contribution."

Costing forms an important part of any ICT development plan, especially as there are many continuing costs, such as call charges.

Alan Teece believes schools should devote much time to training their staff in ICT skills. "The National Lottery funding for teacher training arrives next year and will be curriculum-led, so schools should focus on the basics today," he says.

There is a lot of help available to those schools unsure about how to produce an imaginative, realistic and coherent ICT development plan. Local education authorities and ICT centres are often a good source of guidance and information. So are many hardware and software companies involved in the educational ICT market - many have recruited gifted former teachers or former ICT advisers to their staff.

ICL is working with some authorities - they will not say which - and are sending people into schools to help them develop their ICT plans. Mean-while, RM has been running a series of seminars designed to help schools. So far, these have been attended by almost 5,000 teachers.

RM has also produced an excellent set of free resources to guide both primary and secondary schools through the planning process, from preparing a vision statement to the final action plan.

Another good source of advice is Xemplar's ICT Handbook for Schools (also free), a large ring-bound folder that is packed with help and advice. So far, more than 2,500 schools have requested the ICT handbook, and Trafford local education authority has asked for copies for almost all of its schools.

Chris Powley says schools should be visionary but not over-ambitious:

"There's a perception that ICT is a fast-moving world. It's important that schools have a clear vision of where they want to go, and a clear strategy for getting there. There should be stepping stones along a path rather than giant leaps."

RM: 01235 826000

Xemplar: 01223 724724

ICL Education Systems: 01179 279995

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