History is littered with predictions about the school of the future - and now the time has come to decide what schools really will be like. Building Schools for the Future (BSF) is a pound;40 billion programme that aims to rebuild or upgrade every secondary school in England over the next 15 years. The scheme is already under way, and it will give schools capital funding for ICT that amounts to more money than all the government technology grants they have received since 1982.
The government's aim is to transform not just the school buildings but also what goes on inside them, with ICT playing a key role in teaching and learning experiences worthy of the 21st century. Schools have the freedom to make dramatic changes to the way they use their time and space, drawing on all the good lessons they have learned about ICT.
But how can they make major decisions about technology when the possibilities change so fast? And will there be an opportunity to focus on teaching and learning as well as the architectural detail - or will BSF simply end up as a big building project?
Steve Moss, education ICT adviser at Partnerships for Schools, the government body working with local authorities on BSF, says: "There are no financial or technological barriers - the challenge for authorities and schools lies in setting out their vision for education in the future.
Schools have to start engaging in internal discussions about how they want their school to work. Then the ICT designers and construction specialists can create the learning environment they want.
"With ICT, we have to recognise that the products we need are not necessarily those that are currently available. We have to move systems on to become more personalised. For example, learners do not have access to management information systems (MIS), and yet most MIS information is about the learner."
He believes that schools owe it to their students to continue investing in ICT, rather than holding back until their turn comes for BSF: "They can be thinking about how they might spend their ICT money over the next few years to support new ways of working, rather than reinforcing existing methods."
Tim Pearson, CEO of RM, says: "BSF is a big opportunity, but I am not convinced that all local authorities will have the chance to think about how they transform teaching and learning. The pressure to meet the timetable will mean they just won't be able to engage heads and teaching staff in the way they might want.
"No one can predict what technology will be capable of doing in five years'
time, or what teachers will want. Rather than trying to make predictions, you should expect that contracts will have to change. The key is to choose partners who can be flexible."
RM won the first ICT contract of the BSF programme, to supply a managed service to schools in Solihull. The company was selected before the builders were chosen, but this is not the way things are expected to work in most BSF projects, when an all-embracing contract will be awarded to a bidding consortium that includes ICT and construction firms. "The lion's share of the money goes on the buildings - and the danger is that you choose your ICT provider just because you have chosen a particular builder," says Pearson.
The BSF budget for ICT is pound;1,675 per pupil. Once that is spent, a school receives no more capital for four years. If construction work takes two years, that means there will be a further two before anything more can be bought. Ray Barker, director of the British Educational Suppliers Association (Besa), says: "ICT is changing so fast, and it is going to be almost impossible for schools to get it right first time. I am concerned that if they want something else, they are going to have to wait.
"At the moment, schools can buy what they want. In the school of the future, purchasing will be controlled by a central body, the Local Education Partnership. For lots of suppliers, especially smaller ones, the issue is that they can't get into the supply chain because of procurement rules. Many of these suppliers were founded by teachers, and they tend to be innovative companies that give schools flexibility."
Barker says it is vital that designers listen carefully to teachers, and recalls a visit to a gleaming new academy, where the ICT lab was stiflingly hot: "There was no air conditioning, because the architect didn't like it.
The school was trying to raise pound;30,000 to solve the problem."
Facts and figures
* BSF began last year, and 38 authorities are involved in the first three waves of the programme, with waves 4-6 to be announced shortly. Capital investment is currently running at pound;2.2 billion per year.
* ICT accounts for 10 per cent of the total budget: pound;1,450 per pupil for equipment and software, and pound;225 for infrastructure.
* Partnerships for Schools (PfS) was created by the DfES and Partnerships UK (which develops publicprivate partnerships), to support local authorities on BSF. www.p4s.org.uk
* In each local authority area, BSF is run by a Local Education Partnership (LEP), a partnership between the authority, PfS, and the private sector - typically a consortium that includes construction and ICT companies. The idea is that to achieve best value for money, the LEP makes the buying decisions about ICT and does the purchasing, after consultation with schools. Money can also be set aside in a "local choice fund", designed to allow schools to request specific resources they need to pursue a specialism.