Wanted: leaders with brave vision of new world

Too often politicians talk commitment to IT but balk at the reality, says Margaret Bell.

Just occasionally an idea from a training course stays with you. One I remember is: "If you want to reinforce particular behaviour in the workplace, catch someone doing something right and praise it." I want to concentrate on what is right about the progress being made in information technology in education. It seems more challenging to articulate the good things. I shall, therefore, not resist suggesting how we could go further and pointing out what should be done differently.

The current focus on providing technology for teachers is certainly right; it is the key to breaking the deadlock in their IT development. Hopefully, the evaluation of the portables-for-teachers pilot will suggest strategies for providing teachers with access to technology.

Initiatives that encourage the exchange of expertise and that support professional dialogue should also be encouraged and developed. The establishment of Web sites by the National Council for Educational Technology (NCET) models this new way of communicating. Schools and colleges could be supported to launch their own material on the Web and start a "virtuous circle" of access to digital information. The Special Educational Needs Co-ordinators project, which has established an electronic discussion group between teachers doing similar jobs in different schools, could be extended to other groups of teachers. NCET-TV, the council's service whose programmes are broadcast during BBC2's Learning Zone in the small hours, could become a general channel for teachers.

The evaluation of the use of electronic communications in projects such as the Superhighways for Education is to be encouraged. However, the promise of results from this project should not delay and suppress other activities and mask the urgency for action.

All schools and colleges must be on-line as a matter of priority. A UK Education Net would provide a new method of communication between schools and central government, schools and local government, schools and support agencies and, most importantly, schools and other schools.

It would allow education to model what is commonplace elsewhere. Schools and colleges could then experience first-hand the opportunities and challenges of the new ways of working and be part of the IT-rich world often found only outside their gates.

A UK Education Net could be extended to the concept of a UK Education Intranet (a specialist network for education within the Internet). This would provide a guaranteed service, setting a minimum standard for all while providing scope for those who wish to go above this minimum. It would lead to a co-ordinated approach that maintains competition and choice while not being entirely dependent on the vagaries of the market.

The software reviews undertaken by the NCET provide a useful channel for suppliers and a valuable source of information for purchasers. This should become a regular activity and extended to giving general purchasing advice to help buyers through the maze of prices and changing technology.

It is also right to have an organisation like the NCET, an organisation outside the statutory framework and therefore free to challenge it. It is a brave act deliberately to create an organisation to question and provoke change in the system. It suggests a Department for Education and Employment serious about change and encouraging of new ideas. One could wish, however, that the department was more comfortable with the cuckoo it has introduced into the nest. It seems the more impact the NCET has, the more irresistible the temptation to control and tame it.

As chief executive of the NCET, I was disappointed that I had few, if any, opportunities to discuss strategy with department officials and ministers. I valued their views and analytical powers and would have welcomed the synergy. Often the suggestions put forward by the NCET were like missiles being thrown over a wall in the hope that they would hit a target on someone's agenda. Progress in this uncharted territory requires open discussion and the exchange of embryonic ideas.

What must we do differently? We must move beyond pilots. They are necessary and useful but the real challenge is in drawing from them replicable models capable of wide-scale implementation.

IT in education is on the agenda. It is moving centre stage. It is discussed in most political circles. While that is encouraging, it is important to ensure this new-born infant is not being stifled by kind words of support, by new, unco-ordinated initiatives and by waiting for yet more evidence. There is the constant temptation to contain the new practices to ensure they serve the established systems and not undermine them. Sometimes the ways of containing the wider impact of the technology are very subtle - the words of support are given, the pilot activities continue, the strategy groups are established - but nothing actually happens.

It has become respectable, almost expected, for politicians and officials, to promote the use of IT in education and raise its profile but, as their understanding develops, they begin to sense the real impact of IT on existing infrastructure and power bases. Industry has already felt this impact; the public sector, hardly affected yet, is about to follow. Such insights tend to cause initial enthusiasm to evaporate or metamorphose into calls for more evidence, more pilots.

It is time to build on what has gone before and take the next step. We have a firm foundation and a history to be proud of, but the next stage will be more challenging. There should be a clearly stated policy coupled with specified entitlements for all learners. The statutory agencies should be invited to respond, stating how they will contribute to and support this statement through the way they fund, legislate, set targets and measure outcomes. It is critical that the responsibility for this is appropriately positioned within government, and at a level where policy and strategy are not confined through narrow agendas and constricted by departmental boundaries. Ideally, the drive to exploit IT in education should be part of a wider initiative to harness the power of IT for UK plc.

I am often surprised by private- sector organisations that expect initiative in this area to be led by government. There is a belief of government which considers that it is not an elected member's role to introduce new views but to represent the majority view; that it is government's role to follow and not lead public opinion. This conviction is understandable but it is one that is challenged by the new technologies. The changes that bring opportunity also bring new challenges, uncertainty and fear.

This constantly changing world demands leaders.

* Margaret Bell was chief executive of the NCET from August 1992 until January 1997

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