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Why Irish eyes are smiling

Northern Ireland's huge investment in hardware and software is a model for the future, says Jack Kenny

Can you believe we're doing what we're doing?" asked one excited teacher. Until last year she had deliberately avoided ICT. The William Pinkerton Memorial school in Dervock has been a pilot school in a massive initiative, Classroom 2000, which will affect all 902 primaries in Northern Ireland.

Jacqui Galbraith's school is small - 68 children and five teachers - three full-time and two part-time. They have received eight new computers, a digital camera, a scanner and a web camera, as well as more than 80 software packages. New Opportunities Fund training was completed with the local education authority, the North Eastern Education and Library Board.

Classroom 2000, developed by the Department of Education Northern Ireland, is pioneering a co-ordinated approach to ICT. Over the next 10 years, the Government is pumping some pound;300m into the scheme and schools will be expected to invest an additional pound;100m from delegated budgets. All primaries will be receiving hardware, software and the training necessary to support their use. The curriculum is also being reviewed to ensure pupils and teachers can get the most out of new technology.

In addition, Classroom 2000 is a "managed service", taking some burdens away from schools and allowing teachers to concentrate on the teaching and learning. There is a guaranteed repair service if equipment goes wrong and a curriculum adviser employed nationally to help teachers get the most out of the software - a unique arrangement.

"Now we have Internet in every classroom and each room has four computers plus a laptop," says Jacqui. She is a firm advocate of having computers ready for use. "Hands on every day, when appropriate. You can't do that if you have to whisk children away to a suite. Constant access is part of our classroom practice."

Granada Learning, which is supplying software for the scheme, allows teachers and trainees to use the software at home. This, says Jacqui, allows teachers to come to grips with the programs before using them in the classroom.

The scheme has opened up a whole new world of resources, she says. "We have been doing the Vikings. With the Internet the children can research for themselves. That's exciting. The reading scheme that we have, Wellington Square, has so many extra ICT resources and they are outstanding."

Does she worry that the right to choose software and hardware has been taken away? "I have fewer worries with Classroom 2000 than when I was totally responsible for ordering and installing hardware and software and we do have choice (there are over 100 software titles on offer). The people who have planned all this are very experienced. I trust them."

A typical primary will be entitled to approximately 36 state-of-the-art computers. Schools will have the freedom to swap some desktop machines for other items such as scanners or whiteboards.

Potentially the most interesting development is the national curriculum review being undertaken by the Northern Ireland Council for the Curriculum, Examinations and Assessment. The review will be based on process and generic skills rather than on the acquisition of knowledge, says John Anderson, the education technology strategy co-ordinator for Northern Ireland.

There are lessons to be learnt from the Northern Ireland model. At the BETT education technology show in January, Estelle Morris presented a video of the schools of the future that made it look as though the buildings will do the work, but one is tempted to ask what point there is in a school of the future if it is teaching the curriculum of the past.

Benefits would surely come from ensuring that those delivering future computer training are close to teachers and understand their needs better. The unique arrangement by which advisory teachers are on hand should do this.

The most important message, however, seems to be that ICT and the educational system it serves need to be better linked and coherent: hardware, software, training, support and a refreshed curriculum need to be supplied at more or less the same time instead of in piecemeal and disjointed schemes.

Wellington Square reading materials are published by Nelson Thornes and the software, a series of five CD-Roms, is published by Granada Learning. Jack Kenny is a freelance writer who recently travelled the country as one of the judges of the BECTAICT in Practice Awards. He was also on the panel of judges for the BETT Awards

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