Your inflexible friend

14th May 2004 at 01:00
Welcome new funding or a sop for the education market? Jack Kenny's trawl of teachers finds serious concerns about Electronic Learning Credits

"Funny money" is how one teacher described the electronic learning credits (eLCs) pouring into schools for teachers to buy software and digital content.

One software producer was more critical of the credits, which were intended as a cashless way for schools to buy digital products (the idea was ahead of the technology): "The whole scheme is flawed. This money is not for schools, it's not to solve their problems. It's to dig the Department for Education and Skills (DfES) out of a hole caused by the BBC who will use licence payers' money to produce free software." The money was indeed made available to counter criticisms of "nationalisation by the back door".

The truth, however, is that not many teachers are worried about spending eLCs. Nor are they interested in the furore over market competition caused by the BBCDfES venture, a wrangle that ended up in court and even attracted interest from the European Commission.

Some teachers don't even know eLCs exist, while others are kept in the dark so that others can take over their spending power.

What those who know about eLCs are really concerned with are the spending restrictions imposed. Sue Jones of Charnwood Primary, Leicester, speaks for many teachers when she says: "We need flexibility to decide what our school needs."

Like many of the ICT schemes from the DfES this one shares features with New Opportunities Fund training. Like the NOF scheme, it seems poorly thought out and appears to ignore existing infrastructure. NOF wasted pound;34 million. eLCs, potentially a greater disaster, total pound;330 million.

"Online materials are pointless unless you're on broadband (high-capacity networks), and very few primary schools are," remarked one teacher. "The Government should have waited until broadband was in place, and LEAs and software companies understood installations on a large scale."

Andrew Trythall of Sir Robert Hitcham's School, Framlingham, in Suffolk, points out: "There's a training implication to all this too. There's no point putting new resources on to a network unless you tell, show or demonstrate them to teachers. Otherwise they'll just sit there and no one will use them."

Another co-ordinator makes the point that there used to be a rule of thumb that, when you buy software at least as much again should be spent on training or buying time for teachers to explore the software. That's not the case any longer.

Primary schools' lack of technicians, Andrew also believes, is a problem highlighted by the eLCs. "Technician time is incredibly valuable, and installation of the amount of software we could buy across a huge network was nigh on impossible. I know other schools bought piles of software, and are still waiting for it to be installed. The Government must sort out technicians for schools... If we didn't have a fantastic parent spending all hours working on our network, we would have flopped!"

One solution some schools have found useful is using an additional computer or server as a "cache". The cache saves commonly requested web pages locally so they can be accessed quickly. A good cache can anticipate requirements and the cache can be updated in less busy times. Sadly, eLCs can not be used for caches.

Other anomalies include data-logging. Barbara Higginbotham, of leading supplier Data Harvest, is asked by teachers why they cannot buy data-logging equipment with eLCs. "How can you," asks Barbara, "teach the full curriculum from the Curriculum Online site if it does not have a data-logger?"

It is not unusual to find headteachers, especially in primary schools, who say quite openly that all the money will not be spent on software. "A few years ago I had a contingency fund of pound;15,000," said one. "Now that is down to pound;1,500." Many heads, realising that they have no assurance that the money will be available after 2006, say they are reluctant to buy "online material which has on-costs".

The situation in secondaries is little better. Many teachers are not in the ICT loop and have little idea what eLCs are. "They are not for us," said one English teacher. "They're for the IT people to sort out. I doubt if we'll even be asked our opinion."

"I know they exist but I don't know where they are in our school," said another teacher.

One English teacher who does know about the credits is Stephen Mitchell, English and media studies teacher and ICT cross-curricular co-ordinator at St Luke's High School, Exeter. "Of all the English software that qualifies, and that I have reviewed, very little of it is educationally sound. Much of what passes for exam revision aids is simply click-the-right-button type software. This will not help my students prepare for exams they face. One vendor asked students to print out pages and then write on them for the teacher to assess. This seems a little pointless."

"The basic problem is that schools only need a limited amount of software that is content-based. Much of the content this software contains is available freely on the web. If we want students to be creative, we have to use software that allows them to create, not software that's full of out-of-date 'published facts'."

Stephen argues that the credits have had very little effect on learning in his school: "I either can't get the software installed or it doesn't work when it is installed".

The British Educational Communications and Technology Agency (Becta) is taking over Curriculum Online (the much-maligned internet portal through which schools can find digital products) and eLCs from the DfES. Hopefully Becta will start to remedy some of the defects like: lack of training; lack of quality control; little dialogue with schools and software producers; lack of advice for schools on spending; no strategy for what will happen after the present funding runs out in 2006.

Meanwhile the DfES has little to say other than pound;25 million of the eLCs are spent and it is confident that pound;75 million will be spent by August (when most teachers are away). It is even circumspect about defining eLC materials other than they are "multimedia (digital) materials designed to deliver elements of the curriculum as taught in England", and "approved products can be found on the Curriculum Online website.

eLC facts

* pound;100 million eLCs announced in May 2003

* pound;1,000 per school and around pound;10 per pupil

* The money is issued from DfES via LEAs

* The spending deadline this year is August 2004

* eLCs must be spent on certified digital products from the Curriculum ONLINE SITE

Spending tips

* Make sure all staff understand the implications of the eLC scheme

* All departments should be involved and encouraged to think about new software

* Lobby for greater flexibility in the scheme

* Ask software houses for demos or evaluation copies - do not buy sight unseen

* Carry out an audit of need

* Make sure the software is interactive

* Look at long-term needs and try to future-proof what is spent

* Enhance the subjects identified in the school development plan as being in need of development

* Spend other money on bolstering the infrastructure l Seek advice on purchasing from subject associations, LEA adviser and other schools

* Make sure there is enough technical support available

* Maintain the usual level of ICT spending - remember that eLCs are added extras

* Make sure there's time for training and for teachers to learn and explore the software

* Don't be swayed by promises of free cameras and other hardware Sources of advice

* Curriculum Online

* Software suppliersBESA

R-E-M Pink Cow Select

* Cache suppliers

RM SmartCache


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