Schools are even resorting to bequests to fund their technology aspirations. Gerald Haigh explores the issues involved in devising an appropriate ICT plan
Fans of Coronation Street will have seen the stunned look with which Audrey Roberts greeted the reading of the will of her late husband Alf. "Only pound;1,400, Mrs Roberts. Everything else has gone to Lancaster Royal Grammar School."
Oh, very well, the last bit is made up. But it is certainly true that Lancaster Royal does send out a leaflet asking its former pupils to remember the school in their wills. The leaflet is dignified, well-produced and has lots of general advice about bequests. It does emphasise that priorities should lie with family and friends, but adds: "To remember Lancaster Royal in your will would be a tremendous gesture to help ensure the school's future for generations to come." The appeal has produced, according to Nick Chambers, the development manager, "a significant amount of money and not one single complaint".
Now consider this: "Welcome to Dragfoot School. We have lots of computers, though nobody really knows how many. Every now and again somebody stumbles across yet another BBC 'B' in the corner of a storeroom and, in the library, there is something straight out of Flash Gordon's 1952 rocket ship.
"A few years ago, we mounted a major fund-raising drive - jumble sales, a summer fair, a masked ball, a retired teachers' welly-whanging competition - in order to equip an empty room with a computer network. It has not worked properly for a complete day since then. Only one person on the staff knows how to fix the things that go wrong, and he has a full teaching timetable in the lower school block across the main road.
"He has told the head that the system is now out of date and needs replacing. The governors are disbelieving. 'We spent the same amount on a grand piano in 1953,' said the chairman, 'and nobody talks about replacing that!' " Dragfoot - fictitious, but perhaps recognisable - lies at one end of a wide spectrum. At the other end are schools such as Lancaster Royal. Not only is the latter ahead of the field in terms ofits computer facilities - it was the first state school to have a multimedialanguage centre - but it has also paid a great deal of attention to its overall information and communications technology policy.
It is significant that the school has a development manager on the senior team, playing an important part in building good links with local industry. School buildings and classrooms are used out of school hours by firms for training, and some ICT training is provided by school staff. One of the most influential recent partnerships was with the international ICT management consultants Computer Sciences Corporation, which provided the school with a complete review of its ICT policy.
One of the most important features of the review was its emphasis on shifting the focus away from buying new equipment towards closely examining the way that existing equipment was being used.
Nobody doubts that schools do not have enough computers. However, they are now buying them at an unprecedented rate. A survey by the British Education Suppliers Association last year revealed computer hardware as the biggest ICT spending priority in secondary schools; in primary and secondary schools, computer buying is running at 170,000 computers a year, double the figure for 1995.
A lot of effort, and a large share of school resources, is going into all this buying. Only very recently has really significant money for school computers come from the Government. One primary head says: "We had half a BBC 'B' from the Government when computers first arrived in school in the early Eighties. Then there was nothing until this recent National Grid for Learning money."
His memory might be slightly at fault, but the general impression is accurate enough. Local authorities have given what support they can but, by and large, schools have bought computers either from their cash-strapped general budgets or through fund-raising.
A 1995 government survey showed that, in primary schools, 51 per cent of spending on computers came from the school budget and 29 per cent fromparents. Only 18 percent came from the government. Secondary schools have fared better from government money, but, even so, two-thirds of their computer spending has been from the school budget.
The various retail voucher schemes have had a significant effect in many schools - over two-thirds of all state schools have taken part in Tesco's Computers in Schools Scheme, for example. A great deal of management time very clearly has been spent in finding the means to buy more computers.
Is all this effort well directed? Nick Wilkinson, of CSC, speaks of "a headlong charge for acquisition by any means - and the industry drives it with faster this and quicker that". At the same time, he points out, in many schools computers lie unused for long periods.
Wilkinson and CSC became involved with Lancaster Royal as the result of a business links partnership with the school. Teachers asked CSC for some of their outdated computers, and although the company provided some, staff did not feel this to be the best contribution they could make.
"We told them that our expertise is not kit but people," Wilkinson says. "We suggested that we give them some of our services, which would probably be more useful in the end."
The result was a highly professional review of the school's ICT needs. "We found that although the school was very committed to IT, there was no IT leader to create a school-wide policy to control and plan the expansion of the equipment," Wilkinson says. "This appears to be a very common problem in the education sector."
Now, Lancaster Royal has a much more robust ICT policy, with a network manager, support staff and a rolling budget programme for replacing and enhancing equipment. Nick Chambers says: "CSC's consultancy has been worth much more to us than a donation of IT equipment or money. I'm confident that we have a plan in place that will help pupils use IT to learn more effectively."
CSC has summarised the lessons it learned about planning school ICT in a document available on its website.
Another very useful website for helping to plan ICT development can be found on the Virtual Teachers' Centre, part of the National Grid for Learning. The interactive policy guidelines can help you prepare an ICT policy, and the interactive ICT planning matrices will help to generate a set of development action plans.
But before you dive head first into planning, it is important to work out how to use existing equipment effectively. It is an exercise that should be of prime interest to heads and governor finance committees. Implementing IT, the resource pack published by BECTA, the Government's ICT agency for schools, and NAACE, the computer advisers' association, suggests that the first question of all - "What hardware have you got?" - is not nearly as naive as it seems, pointing out that "there are many IT co-ordinators who don't know the answer".
It also makes a point which, though obvious, ought to make teachers stop and think: "Buying a new computer for the school can only increase IT resources if all the existing equipment continues to be useable." The most obvious dangers of the "headlong rush" are, first, that the school will buy the wrong equipment and, second, that whatever is bought will accumulate faster than the school's ability to maintain and use it properly.
CSC draws attention to research showing that the total cost of owning a PC over its life can be four or five times the original price. Replacement costs, technical support, staff training, maintenance contracts, phone connection charges, software - all these add up to a significant sum, and to ignore any part of them is faulty management.
For a school to invest in a new network and then find itself unable to pay a qualified person to manage it would suggest faulty priorities. Arguably, the network might be deferred and the technical person taken on and told to make sure all the existing computer equipment is working properly.
'IT in Schools: Guide to Producing an IT Strategy.' CSC Ltd. www.uk.csc.comschools
ICT development tools, part of the Virtual Teachers' Centre at: www.vtc.ngfl.gov.ukprofdevsmanagersschoolstools.html
'Implementing IT'. NAACE. Available from BECTA on 01203 416 994 for pound;35 plus pound;2.95 postage. www.becta.gov.uk
'Information and Communications Technology in UK Schools'. BESA, November 1998. www.besanet.org.uk
Helping heads get IT right, page 28
REVIEWING ICT:THE QUESTIONS TO ASK
What do you want to do?
Are you interested in being a school at the cutting edge of information and communications technology - a beacon to others? Or are you just determined to make ICT serve your own basic curriculum needs? What will be the relationship between your administration system and your curriculum ICT? Every subsequent action will be governed by such strategic decisions.
Who's running the show?
One head says that, whatever the structure on paper, ICT in many schools is run by a loosely organised group of interested teachers and technical people. "It's creative, open minded, enthusiastic, knowledgeable - but it's often not really worked into the fabric of the school."
Successful ICT management calls for a balance between someone senior who has clout and the ability to negotiate with departments across the school, andsomeone technical who can keep the computers working successfully.
What equipment do you already have?
Check and write down how each piece of equipment is being used now.
Calculate the cost of keeping and ultimately replacing each piece of usefulequipment that you have. (BECTANAACE's 'Implementing IT' hasphotocopiable proformas for this and many other planning activities).
Look at the gaps between what you are doing now and what you want to do. Some of the gaps might be plugged by better use of existing equipment. Some will call for new equipment.
Buy new equipment wisely and well as part of a whole-school plan.