Home use of the internet should no longer be seen in isolation. With the advent of laptops, the seamless nature of the learning day has moved out of the realms of science fiction. As a parent you need to know what schools are doing in information and communications technology (ICT). This chapter offers a brief outline of the story to date, tells you what the government is up to, and explains how to judge progress at your child's school. Our common theme - the parents' crucial role - again comes to the fore.
Parents can help with extra funding which goes a long way in schools. Think of it like this. If a school's budget is £1m, about 85 per cent goes on salaries. So the head has just £150,000 for innovation. If the Parents and Teachers Association can raise £15,000 in a year it has, in effect, increased the real budget by 10 per cent. Beyond this, parents can drive a school to take the risks with ICT that need to be taken.
When computers first arrived in schools they were part of information technology (IT). This betrayed a basic, if forgiveable, error. They were seen as delivery systems for data. With the PC came word processing. The internet - and the revolution in communications - was still a generation away.
The story began in schools in 1967 with the formation of the National Council for Educational Technology. But the big moment was in 1982 when the government teamed up with local town halls to provide every school with a computer. Early emphasis was on hardware. Unfortunately, effective use of the kit was less of a priority. One particular government initiative was known in schools as the "modem in the cupboard" project. Between 1984-85 and 1993-94, the numbers of computers in schools grew fivefold to an average of 85 in each secondary school and ten in each primary school. The dreaded "ratio" was born - the magic number supposedly illustrating a school's IT muscle. In many cases this is less than useless as a guide to the quality of learning in the classroom.
The revolution in learning began in 1997 with the publication of a report by Lord Stevenson, chairman of Pearson (owner of the Financial Times), in collaboration with consultants McKinsey & Co. It introduced the idea of ICT - where the added word "communications" reflected awareness of the interactive nature of the internet. Stevenson said that while, as a country, we had many PCs in schools "it is not clear that IT has made a significant impact on educational standards". On the hardware front there were still many schools on the wrong side of what would come to be known as "the digital divide". In 40 per cent of schools there was only one computer for 20 or more children. IT helped pupils to learn maths, primary-level English and secondary-level geography, but the impact elsewhere was mixed.
Closely followed by the present government, the Stevenson vision has been realised in a few schools, partly achieved in many, and is the shape of things to come in most. In some schools the future is already here; others would not surprise a Victorian time-traveller.
Schools need a broader vision of how IT can be used that goes beyond just using spreadsheets in maths and word processing in English. There are many possibilities. For example, content-rich software can be used to aid geography and history teaching, and interactive tuition courses can be used to teach modern languages. IT can be employed in group work or to help individuals learn at their own pace. Integrated learning systems, which include mechanisms for tracking and reporting a child's progress, have been shown to be beneficial in raising basic numeracy. Links to the internet can give teachers support, training and the ability to communicate.
The Stevenson Report also noted that the average child spent 28 hours a week watching television compared with 25 hours in a classroom or doing homework (spread over the year). If any shift could be made between these two activities, so more time was spent on the PC linked to learning, the benefits would be huge. The government is trying to stimulate the production of interactive learning material for children. Parents should not dismiss "games" on PCs as simply a way of improving their children's eye-to-hand co-ordination. Many games involve very rapid reasoning. "When you see a child playing a game at speed it is not just a case of cyber-palsy," says Stephen Heppell, professor at the research-based Ultralab. "There is some pretty smart reasoning going on at high speed." Parents should remember that the excitement of games can be a powerful way for children to learn.
So what has the government done to bring about change in schools? Stevenson recommended many co-ordinated initiatives rather than a centrally driven project to cram kit into schools. It also recommended that a minister be given control of ICT in schools, a position now held by Michael Wills. As the various jigsaw parts of policy begin to fit together, his role is seen as increasingly effective.
The government's big idea was to build a national platform for using the internet that is accessible from anywhere. This is the National Grid for Learning (NGfL). Set up in 1997, the NGfL provides content, and enables schools and colleges to connect to one another. The government has put £657m into it over four years. All schools should be connected by 2002. In March 1999, 93 per cent of secondary schools were connected, compared with 83 per cent in 1998; the figures for primary schools were 62 per cent and 17 per cent. The pupil/computer ratio was 8:1 in secondary schools (9:1 in 1998), and 13:1 in primary schools (18:1 in 1998). Compare your school with these figures by all means - but then use our alternative test.
If you feel left behind by the internet, imagine how teachers feel. The government has responded to concerns about lack of IT skills in teachers with two initiatives. Just over £200m has been set aside from the National Opportunities Fund (NOF) for training. Click if you want to see what training they can get. Computers for Teachers is a £20m fund to help teachers buy kit. It is not a bottomless pit and many schools have only just decided they must give teachers a laptop. Details on this are available.
What about skills for parents? The government has set up a lifelong learning organisation called University for Industry (UfI). This is being branded in adverts as "Learndirect", which will be the name used for local centres. There are now more than 250 UK online centres with plans to create 1,000 in total. Learndirect is a national information and advice service. Many of them will be co-sited with schools. You should be able to find a course to give you the IT skills you need to keep up with the kids.
The government is also currently spending £252m on establishing 700 ICT learning centres. Details can be found here. There seems little doubt that the government is committed to closing the so-called "digital divide" between e-haves and e-have-nots. As a parent, there is no need to feel the internet has passed you by: lifelong learning is a key government initiative and you can tap the courses on offer.
The government is not the only mover and shaker in our schools. "You cannot really explain the explosive growth of ICT in schools by reference to UK government policy alone - important though it has been," says Warwick University's John Field, the UK's first professor of lifelong learning. Hardware, software and service providers have got close to teachers and schools and have moved more quickly than government can. These have included Apple, Oracle, Compaq, Research Machines, ICL and Microsoft. Parents should ask about which companies are involved in schools in their area.
The companies have not had a ubiquitous impact. The long-term danger is that they might concentrate on areas where they can find a big market for their products. But, led by government, they have so far made a significant impact on inner-city areas. Government initiatives designed to pump money into underprivileged areas - such as Excellence in Cities, Education Action Zones, City Academies and Beacon Schools - bring extra funding for ICT development. Schools in trouble can afford to take risks while the leafy suburbs can sometimes get left behind. The independent school sector, in particular, has been hit badly by complacency and risk-averse management. So, in the short term, ICT may tend to progress fastest in failing schools. Specialist schools will act as "pathfinders" in the suburbs and rural areas as well.
This is where parents come in. "I reckon there has been an upsurge of activity by PTAs and similar organisations as well as constant pressure from families on schools," says Field. Parents, especially those who work with IT themselves, can be shocked to find that their children are being taught with ageing hardware. Parents are also impatient. They want their children to have the best now. A lot of local fund-raising has gone on. Parents do need to take a lead, and perhaps get directly involved as governors.
Contact between parents and teachers will mirror changes in learning which have broken down barriers - what Field calls the "psychological contract" between home and school. The problem with parent power is that it is likely to be better resourced and knowledgeable in well-off areas, and tend to broaden the digital divide. But parents can make a difference, whatever their resources. Inner-city projects, such as ICL's in Liverpool, have seen an upswing in parental involvement. So, while risk-taking in ICT may be more common in the inner-city areas, parents can make a local difference wherever they live.
As a parent you will want to help your child work at home and at school. You will need to judge how good the school is at introducing online education.