In ICT, the past is not what it was

If there is one thing we are good at, it’s idealising the past. This tendency is captured well in this ancient (1958) clip from the film Gigi:

From 1997 there was an almost palpable – some would say relentless – commitment to educational technology in the UK. Although not always strategic, it was both consistent and persistent. It was a qualitative as well as quantitative break with the past. Yet, whilst I would never disparage these efforts, I don’t believe they were necessarily as wonderful as people remember them to be.

Perhaps that is because my perspective is different from that of a teacher. New Labour took the reins of the country in May 1997, and just a few months later I left teaching to go into advisory work. In other words, I crossed the line from being the recipient for school ICT funding to being responsible for its dissemination. Here is what I learnt from the experience:

The National Grid for Learning (NGfL) funding

In order to access this, schools had to have an ICT strategy document, and that document had to address e-safety. All very laudable, but in practice:

  • Some schools used one of many downloadable templates in which all they had to do was insert the school’s name in the appropriate places.
  • Even where this didn’t happen, some schools needed more hand-holding than others. I recall sitting down with one Head of ICT saying, “… and I think it would be good at this point to say something about X; what do you think?” This was on every single point, and it would have been quicker, and less painful, for me to have written it myself and posted it to them.

Not all schools needed that sort of treatment, of course, and I daresay many schools benefited from the plethora of sample strategy documents that people produced. Indeed, I, as the author of such a document, gained enormously from the writing process itself, because I had to write something which was both concise and potentially relevant to all types of school. As in many cases, the journey was at least as useful as the arriving, perhaps even more so – but only for those of us who took an active interest in the journey.

The theoretical penalty for a school not meeting the strategy document requirements was the withholding of its funding. In practice, I doubt that ever happened. For one thing, who would know? The Department for Education cannot oversee 30,000 schools. Local Authority staff can concentrate only on schools which give cause for concern or those which buy into their services. In that respect the education system is – much like any other system I imagine – based, in effect, on the idea of the Panopticon, the brainchild of Jeremy Bentham. This is a prison designed in such a way that the warders may observe any prisoner at any time. The inmates know they can be watched, but they don’t know when they are being watched. So they behave constantly as though they are being watched. Similarly, schools self-regulate their “behaviour” in case they are inspected or otherwise descended upon by people who can pull them up over something they have or haven’t done.

But there is the political, with a small ‘p’, factor too. Who, being realistic, will tell a school that it does not deserve its funding? Even if the harbinger of such news could avoid being lynched, the failure of the school to meet the conditions would be seen as a failure on the part of the Local Authority to assist it to do so. No: by hook or by crook schools had to receive their NGfL funding, and all anyone could hope for was that its ICT strategy really was a living reference.

Targets

Schools were obliged to have an internet connection, and every year there would be statistics published which proclaimed something along the lines of  “95% of schools in the UK are now connected to the internet!” I always wondered how many of those schools defined “connected” as having a computer locked in a cupboard in the library for most of the week, but which was wheeled out on Wednesday afternoons when the part-time school librarian was working, and plugged into the telephone socket (the computer, not the librarian!).

That’s the trouble with targets: you can meet them without meeting them, if you see what I mean. When the person in charge of the intranet (PICOTI) in a Local Authority announced in a bulk email sent to Heads of Division that the intranet was now live, I went to see him:

Me: I suppose that by “live” you mean that there is one computer in the Council which has the intranet software on it, and it has now been plugged in and switched on?

Picoti: That’s right.

Me: And that the intranet is usable only if anyone who wishes to use it lines up and takes their turn on that computer?

Picoti: That’s right.

Me: Why? Why did you make that announcement?

Picoti: I had to because the target completion date on our Strategic Plan was today.

The pupil: computer ratio targets were good in their way, but even there I used to attend conferences in which ICT Co-ordinators would be asking the Man from the Ministry questions like: can one interactive whiteboard be counted as equivalent to 15 computers? Or: is it OK if I buy 10 digital cameras instead of 2 more computers?

From such questions it occurs to me that one of the unintended consequences of the targets, and of the e-learning credits rules (see below) was to penalise those schools that not only really did have a strategy in place, but a strategy that was different to that envisaged by the Education Department. It would have been a brave school principal, or one familiar with the ideas of Jeremy Bentham, to have attempted to adopt an ICT policy which was not centred on computers.

e-Learning Credits

This was the name given to the money that was ring-fenced for buying software. I was constantly having the following conversation:

ICT Co-ordinator: Is it OK if I use the ELC money to buy hardware instead?

Me: It’s been designated for software.

ICTCo: Yes, but is it OK to spend it on hardware? I don’t need more software at the moment.

Me: It’s been designated for software.

And so on. I couldn’t be seen to be endorsing their decision to use the money “improperly”, but the reality was that they would more than likely “get away with it” anyway.

Ring-fenced funding

A great idea, except that nurseries were excluded from ring-fenced funding for some reason. I found money for them from somewhere because many nursery headteachers where I worked were mad keen on incorporating the use of educational technology into the school day.

School allocation was based on pupil numbers, not ICT needs, to a large extent. I suppose there is no other equitable way of distributing funds, but it always struck me as unfortunate that some small schools with big ICT ambitions  were less well provided for than large schools with no ICT ambitions.

Did ICT Co-ordinators actually receive their funding? This is something I always wondered about, especially when some schools seemed to be using equipment which was years old. Quite recently, in fact, I heard of a school that has only just acquired a Learning Platform. So what happened to the money designated for that purpose over the past few years? When I was in a position to do something about it, I made sure that all the ICT Co-ordinators in the area received notification of how much money they would be receiving, to the exact penny, and when they would be receiving it, in the anticipation that they would then be in a position to make accurate and timely purchasing decisions.

Conclusions

In my experience, the schools that were keen on ICT went ahead anyway, and still do. An absence of money leads them to look for creative solutions. I am not naive: I know that in the present climate, with the full impact of the education cuts yet to bite, it will become more and more difficult for schools to fund their ICT provision, and that some of their aspirations will have to be put on hold. However, what I hope I have managed to convey in this post was that even the age of plenty was not without its difficulties, and that not all of the outcomes of the various initiatives and funding plans were the intended ones.

Does that mean I think all that funding and all those initiatives were a waste of money and time? Absolutely not. They put ICT on the map. They established ICT as central, not peripheral. At least, that’s my perception.

Or am I guilty of misremembering the past too?