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Welcome to geeks' paradise

Schools are now up to their ears in costly high-tech gadgets. But are they any use? Michael Shaw reports

Schools are collecting a staggering assortment of electronic gadgetry, new data reveals.

Statistics compiled by the Government from 2,160 schools show that more than a third of secondaries now have video conferencing facilities. The same proportion also has wireless computer networks that allow teachers and pupils to connect laptops and palm-held computers to the internet without plugging them into a phone socket.

However, the greatest advances in technology in the past year have been in primaries. They now have one computer for every eight pupils - meeting a Government target for 2004 a year early.

Primary teachers also seem to make greater use of computers; 90 per cent say they use a computer at least once a week in their lessons, compared to 50 per cent of secondary teachers.

Several gadgets that were once rare in schools have now become commonplace.

Interactive whiteboards - often used to impress visiting parents - appear in 82 per cent of secondary and 48 per cent of primary schools. Virtually all schools have digital cameras and most run their own website. The proportion owning DVD players has also nearly doubled in the last year, even though educational programmes mostly come on video.

David Burrows, head of Microsoft UK's education wing, said the statistics showed that schools were likely to have a computer for every pupil by 2010.

However, he was concerned that they were spending too much on elaborate interactive whiteboards and video conferencing systems when cheaper alternatives were being developed. "Schools are buying interactive whiteboards even though the evidence isn't yet there to show how useful they are and they can just encourage a didactic approach to teaching," he said.

The Institute of Directors was also unsure about the effectiveness of some gadgetry. Richard Wilson, its business policy executive, said: "Schools can have all manner of computer equipment but it is peripheral in importance compared to well-trained teachers.

"I was surprised so many schools had video-conferencing. The vast majority of business people prefer to meet face to face.

"As for DVD players and digital cameras, I can see how schools might use them but they are of greater entertainment than educational value."

However, high-flying youngster Theresa Thurston said it was vital schools had a range of computing equipment because otherwise they were "operating in the Stone Age".

The 18-year-old from Poole, in Dorset, won the "A Star" award for the UK's top female computing student this week and dedicated the prize to John Gilhooley, her information and communications technology teacher at Canford school in Wimborne, who died last year. She is now studying biology at Cambridge university.

"Computers provide benefits in all areas from typing essays to drawing diagrams," she said.

Eggbuckland community college in Plymouth is leading the way in using technology. Ninety pupils in each year have been picked to do the bulk of their work at school and home on lap-tops.

All staff communicate by email and use online systems for reporting on and assessing students.

Dan Buckley, Eggbuckland's ICT co-ordinator, won the prize for most creative use of ICT at last week's national teaching awards. He said he had found digital video cameras to be a powerful teaching tool as they allowed pupils who were visual learners to show their true potential. But he acknowledegd there had been cases of "cart-before-the-horse thinking", where schools bought equipment without developing new ways of teaching to go with it.

Schools ICT survey 2003 is at

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