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The trouble with 'old' ware;Briefing;School Management;Computers

UK pupils have more computers in schools than their peers in other countries, according to a recent Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development report, based on data collected in 1995.

This is the good news. However, according to a survey conducted by the Department for Education and Employment, many of these computers may not be up to scratch.

The survey estimated that there were 238,000 computers in primaries, 360,000 in secondaries and 22,000 in special schools. That is 18 primary children per machine, nine secondary pupils and four special school pupils. Even the USA cannot match this.

The total of 620,000 computers is very impressive. But more worrying is that just under 250,000 of these are more than five years old. It means that more than a third are unlikely to be compatible with modern software. Indeed, only about one in four computers in primary and secondaries has multimedia facilities.

Most schools replace their information and communications technology (ICT) hardware from their annual budgets. According to the survey, primaries spent about pound;2,000 per year on hardware, secondaries around pound;26,000 and special schools about pound;5,000.

These figures seem impressive but assuming a new system costs pound;1,000, it would take at least three years for primary schools to replace machines more than five years old at current levels of expenditure. Secondaries are in a better position, it will take them just over a year.

As the amount of hardware grows in schools, so the replacement issue will loom ever larger. Keeping up with technology imposes new budget demands.

To be up-to-date with developments, how long can a school expect to keep its equipment? One possible answer is to give schools reconditioned computers but this is surely not the real solution.

Fortunately, the Government has allowed more than pound;700 million through the Standards Fund up to 2002 to pay for among other things, new hardware. Perhaps as much as a quarter of that won't be on new hardware at all, but on replacement computers.

To keep our lead in the OECD league may require even more investment than has been pledged.

John Howson is a fellow of Oxford Brookes University and runs an education research company, e-mail

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