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1 First let us get one old misconception out of the way. It is sometimes said that the UK is ahead in the penetration of computers in schools internationally. Taking into account the long "tail" of obsolete or almost obsolete computers, and that figures are no reflection of how effectively a computer is used(1), it is doubtful whether this is true. However, the key point is that even if it were true, this is analogous to suggesting that a runner is ahead after 500m of a marathon!

It is an irrelevant and misleading claim. We recommend that no hardware equipment over 5 years at the most be included in the count. If nothing else, this will help remove any false sense of complacency.

2 To get the point where ICT becomes like electricity - "invisible" - will require substantial investment. For example, McKinsey's costing of a 5 year replacement programme based on a laboratory model (ie: 3 rooms of 22 PCs in each school) would equate in the steady state to approximately 65,000 per secondary school per annum ie. 80 per child(2).

3 Happily for Government, although as we discuss in point 5, there is likely to be a need for some increase in Government expenditure on hardware, this does not imply that there is an enormous up-front bill for the Government to foot:

Most of these costs will be - rightly - absorbed by spending decisions taken at the local level of the schools, the LEAs and indeed the home.

Even if the money were available from Central Government to finance hardware at this scale, it would be an unwise investment taking into account both the inconsistent nature of teacher experience and skills in relation to ICT and the lack of relevant software.

4 In addition, there are some encouraging signs on the funding of hardware.

Expenditure on ICT as a whole is increasing as a percentage of education expenditure(3) as a result of mainly local decisions by schools and LEAs. Common sense suggests that this will continue. Looking at the year 1993/94 (the last year for which we have been able to discover figures), it would take an increase of only 25% over a 5 year period to reach 3.1% of educational expenditure in the primary/ secondary sector and so to get somewhere near the steady state expenditure required (on the basis of the less costly laboratory or "demi-classroom" model as set out in McKinsey's theoretical models in the final section of their document). These figures are comparable with the rate of increase that occurred in the years prior to 93/94.

If recent trends are anything to go by, the relative cost of hardware components is likely to drop significantly over the next few years or so. For example, memory prices have dropped by a factor of four over the last 12 months.

However, the major new and encouraging factor that has emerged in recent years is the huge private expenditure on ICT being made at home.

The McKinsey analysis suggests that the current penetration of computers in the home is approximately 22% (excluding those bought before 1989, and devices such as games consoles). On this basis, the McKinsey extrapolations from expected shipments(4) suggest that by the year 2000/1, penetration of computers into homes could have risen to 44%. Alternatively, if growth followed the same patterns as for VCRs, the figures could be higher still at around 55%.

5 We have said that a mass Government purchase of hardware, even if it could be afforded, is not the "solution" to accelerating the use of ICT in schools over the next few years. This should not be taken as letting Government off the hook entirely for the provision of hardware!

There will continue to be small schools, in particular, including many primary schools, which find it difficult to find the necessary funds for even one-off investments in ICT (be it hardware, software, technical support, etc.)

And, of course, as the software and teacher support log jams diminish, so the need for hardware will increase, albeit we anticipate that it will be increasingly possible to finance this from the funds available to schools for non-teaching costs.

There will always continue to be a need for Central Government to stimulate and in some cases part-fund or match-fund ground breaking innovations. One example of which we received evidence from a number of people is the idea of specialist computer rooms kitted out with the latest and best equipment for children with particular interests and aptitudes. These create a magnet around which:

  • Excellent - even extraordinary - attainment can be achieved;

  • Senior students can help to develop younger students;

  • There can be wider community access which extends well beyond the normal school day as well as making more creative use of existing school and community facilities; and

  • Increased levels of access can be created for children in households without computers (see third dash point under point 6 opposite).
  • Another example of a relatively small scale but worthwhile initiative would be the provision of liquid crystal projectors in classrooms which at a relatively low cost would enable every student in the classroom to see a computer screen.

    We are not suggesting that Government takes on the full burden of funding of such experiments; in this example there is a clear role for other sources of funds; LEAs using earmarked funding mechanisms such as the Grant for Education Support and Training [GEST], industry or the Lottery. There may be a case for Government to give responsibility to an agency for stimulating and funding small scale initiatives for promoting ICT in schools (this may well be an area in which NCET/SCET are appropriate).

    6 The challenges to Government on the hardware side, therefore, are:

    To sort out the blockages that currently exist to the hardware being effectively used. This will take a period of years by which time the increase in the percentage of educational budgets being spent on ICT taken together with the increase in private acquisition of computers will have gone some way to meeting the necessary costs.

    To ensure that there is sufficient funding to make sure that schools, and small schools and primary schools in particular, can keep pace with developing technology.

    This leaves what in our view is a key current and future problem:

    Access for children in disadvantaged households.

    Government must address this key hardware problem. The same problem existed for many years over access to books; public libraries were the response. Over the next decade we hope to see local authorities - with appropriate Government stimulus and experimentation - initially experimenting and then developing ways of giving access to computers to those who do not have them at home. There is unlikely to be one exclusive way of doing it. The types of approach already being thought of include:

  • Investing more heavily in computers in schools on the basis that they can remain open to the community after school hours and at weekends.

  • Loaning equipment to students outside schools hours

  • Making community access to computers available in public libraries ...(5)

  • Setting up dedicated cyber centres ...(6)

  • Private/public liaisons with operators of what have become to be known as "cyber cafŽs" with special access for schools

  • Mobile buses containing state of the art equipment

    None of this, however, will help very much unless we support the teaching profession more effectively in their endeavours to acquire and use the relevant skills (see "Teacher support").

  • 7 Two miscellaneous issues have emerged in the evidence given to us on which we should give our views:

    The issue of standardisation.

    The issue of second hand computers.

    8 We are not persuaded of the need to impose standardisation on schools(7).

    In most instances, history suggests that standardisation is likely to impede rather than facilitate progress. New and possibly better technological solutions will continue to be developed - eg. smart TVs, networked PCs, intelligent phones, work stations, laptops, palmtops - and enforcing standard hardware in the education sector will prevent schools from taking advantage of these developments and, therefore, discourage manufacturers from developing them.

    Furthermore, students need to be trained on equipment that exists in the world beyond education. In other words, hardware in schools should reflect what is used in the workplace and be similarly diverse.

    Finally, standardisation will prevent the UK benefiting from being part of a global industry. With our own domestic standard, the education sector would be unable to take advantage of new developments elsewhere in the world as well as being unable to export our own developments outside the UK.

    9 Providing schools with second hand computers is a siren concept, occasionally promoted by politicians, about which we are cautiously sceptical! We note that teachers tend to be wary of it. The general conclusion from our evidence is that the age of the current stock of computers is already a difficult issue. The operating principle should be that schools have the most up to date computers offering gains in reliability, ease of use, power, capability, capacity and overall credibility.

    Cross references to McKinsey:
    (1) Exhibit 8, (2) Exhibit 47-54, (3) Exhibit 4, (4) Exhibit 20, (5) Exhibit 27, (6) Exhibit 45, (7) The need to modernise computer hardware

    © The Independent ICT in School Commission 1996/7. All rights reserved. Contents page