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Who gets what, and how?

With ICT expenditure in schools at an all-time high, how efficiently is that money being spent? And why are there such disparities? How can you get the most for your money and ensure your school gets what it really needs? George Cole looks at the broader issues of ICT funding, while other writers examine the key issues in depth

When you read about schools knee-deep in state-of-the-art computers, whiteboards, plasma screens and wireless networks, your wheezing old network, held together with sweat, prayers and sheer IT brilliance, can be made to seem what it is - totally inadequate. How, you probably ask, do these people attract such riches?

For a start it helps to be in the right area. Some LEAs are dispensing different amounts of money. For example, why, when Denbighshire and Warrington are similar sized authorities, do Denbighshire schools receive one quarter of the NGFL funding that schools in Warrington receive? Why do some LEAs insist that schools receive NGFL funds as equipment rather than money? Why, as a survey by the National Association of Head Teachers shows, is average spending per secondary pupil pound;2,573 in Cumbria and pound;1,862 in Northumberland? Why does Westminster delegate only 76.2 per cent of the authority's schools budget while Southend delegates 88 per cent? Such issues could go on and on and must be addressed.

You also need to be in the right school. The fact is that the percentage of the discretionary budget that is spent on ICT can differ markedly. The percentage will depend on the priority that the headteacher gives to ICT. Most schools only spend 1.7 per cent of budget on IT. Many spend even less. A business will spend 4.5 per cent.

Schools have to become "critical consumers", and the evaluation of effectiveness must be rigorous. It is not unusual for a school to spend pound;30,000 on an integrated learning system (ILS) on the strength of the sales pitch without even considering the three Government-sponsored evaluation reports very carefully (and these are not enthusiastic). That pound;30,000, the total annual IT spend for most secondary schools, will starve other areas.

However, even if you are in the "wrong" LEA and the "wrong" school, you can still make a difference. One of the most imaginative ICT teachers of recent times, Mark Robinson, formerly of Ambleside primary school in Cumbria, did most of his work on a shoestring. When you look at some of Ambleside's amazing graphics work on the Web it is interesting to discover that the program, Bryce, came off the cover disk on a computer magazine. Half the software that Mark used came from that source.

Mark is typical of teachers whose enthusiasm for improving learning is so great that they make a big difference. ICT is seductive but it is what it can do to transform learning that is paramount. Nerds, geeks and "gatekeepers" are usually ineffective. Well-resourced schools are not necessarily the ones which went out to seek money, but they showed some passion and flair about achieving their educational aims - and this is what earned the funds. In other words, you must have something to offer.

You have to show that you are not just interested in "kit"; that you are interested in what good kit can do or, even better, what poor kit can do. If you start to show the world that you are doing something that is innovative on an old PC then you are strengthening your aruments for showing what you could do with with the latest Pentium PC.

Computer companies want two things - someone to review their kit and say it is wonderful (usually not an option); and teachers to use the kit and produce something wonderful. Do that. Make sure they hear about it and the ICT world will beat a path to your door.

Local politics are important, and governors are often helpful there. Billy Atkinson, in Carlisle, runs a couple of garages. He is also chair of governors of Upperby Primary School. Billy understands the politics of Cumbria and the school benefits from that. Last year Margaret Beckett opened the new pound;135,000 wing that has a lecture room and computer suite all shared between the school and the community.

The national ICT teacher training scheme can help too. Dave Maughan of Seaton School near Workington has received a grant from the New Opportunities Fund (NOF) for an after-school club. Ruth Parker has been employed as a development worker at Kirkswald Primary School in the Eden Valley, and has developed a course for farmers to record and transmit the data that is now necessary because of BSE. Money trickles into the school from the Agricultural Training Board and then everyone benefits.

The concept of school is changing. Money will now flow from a number of sources if the school develops a genuine community focus - and that has to be more than a couple of ICT evenings of "Computers for the Petrified" courses for parents. Learning centres are high on the national agenda. The New Opportunities Fund (NOF) has grants for out-of-school activities including summer schools. There are also grants for out-of-school childcare. There is pound;200 million for community access to lifelong leaning. At present, about pound;23 million has been granted to online learning centres and community grids. The enterprising school can benefit itself as well as its community.

Funding has shifted. Money is not necessarily going to flow as freely through the channels as it has in the past. The bidding culture is here. The ability to write bids to make a case is important. If you are being unsuccessful, then try by fair means or foul to get hold of a bid that has pressed the right buttons and learn from it - maybe use it as a template.

Companies such as Cisco, 3Com and Intel have been running schemes, not to give kit away, but to train teachers. The Cisco Academy program is one of the largest in the world. Mike McKeown, Cisco's education business manager, is convinced that schools who go through the program can become trainers and will increase their attractiveness to outside companies.

Finally, be warned: however inventive teachers can be in attracting ICT resources, this can never be a substitute for proper funding. Marian Brooks, head of Cranford community school in Hounslow, Middlesex, makes the point that ICT has to be an essential, central part of a budget. Being dependent on the windfalls and grants that will vary from year to year, she believes, creates a dependency culture and no real way forward.

Jack Kenny is a freelance writer, and chair of examiners for English for one of the major GCSE examining boards

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