According to the latest statistics released by the Department for Education and Skills (DFES), primary schools each spend an average of £10,300 a year on information and communications technology. For secondary schools, the figure is £60,300. These large sums reveal how ICT is playing a greater role in learning, teaching and management. Not so long ago, most schools spent most of their ICT budget on computers, with some funds allocated to software. Later, they began investing in the infrastructure to create school networks. But anyone visiting this year's British Educational and Training Technology Show (BETT 2002) on January 9 to 12 at Olympia in London, will soon find that there are numerous ICT products and services fighting for a slice of a school's budget. The list is almost endless: managed services, online services (with telecoms charges), training packages, desktop computers, portable computers, wireless technologies, management and administration packages, computer peripherals, as well as specialist products like integrated learning systems.
Much ICT investment has been driven by the government's National Grid for Learning (NGFL) programme and many visitors to BETT will be wondering if education secretary Estelle Morris - who will be opening the show - will shed any light on the government's future plans for the NGFL. Morris has already stated her belief that ICT underpins the strategies set out in the recent White Paper, adding that schools need to remodel the way they use ICT. Schools will be interested to know what this will involve.
Ray Barker, director of the British Educational Suppliers Association (Besa), says BETT has undergone a radical change: "BETT used to be about hardware, but the emphasis is now more about what you can do with it. Teachers are more confident and are more demanding consumers." In the past, some educational companies used to rely on smoke and mirrors to impress visitors. Now fancy jargon or software packages with jaw-dropping graphics are no longer enough. Today's teacher is more likely to ask: "How will it help me teach or my students learn?" or "How will it save me time?" For this reason, Barker believes there will be a greater emphasis on computer peripherals at this year's show: "About 90 per cent of schools have digital cameras, and products like Intel's MovieMaker and Apple's iMovie have taken digital creativity to new heights. You can even make your own DVDs with products like Apple's iDVD." Interactive whiteboards were virtually unknown a couple of years ago, but a Besa survey suggests that almost one in five schools now use them.
Many companies at BETT will be showing how their products can help with management and administration. David Eccles, general manager of Granada Learning Online Learning, says: "Our theme is integration. For instance, how you can integrate learning materials with assessment systems and with back-end systems like SIMS." Ray Fleming, RM's secondary schools business manager, sees school networks becoming integrated: "In business you have a single network but most schools have at least two, one for curriculum and for one administration for example. I think we'll see many of these merge into a single network." Fleming also sees school networks extending learning into the community. At BETT, RM will be showcasing version three of its Connected Community package (see page 77), which provides schools with the tools to do this.
Microsoft's BETT theme is "It's About Time," says David Burrows, head of Microsoft Education. "Teachers want to save time and get on with the things that are important like raising standards." Microsoft will also be showing tools that support administration and, with Toshiba, will be hosting a "Classroom of Today" demonstration. "The choice of name is deliberate, because we want to show teachers that a lot of this stuff you can do today," adds Burrows.
Visitors to BETT will be curious about the government's plans for managed services. Besa's research claims that one in five schools now use NGFL managed services to spend less time on managing and running their ICT infrastructure. Last year, the DFES announced plans to ensure that schools opting for managed services received an adequate level of service, although little has been heard of this initiative since.
Alan Teece, director of Granada Learning, notes that: "This is a watershed year with the introduction of Curriculum Online and investment in digital content by the government." Online services like Granada Learning's Learnwise (which has been adopted by 19 LEAs under the North West Grid for Learning) and RM's Living Library (with more than 6,000 school subscribers) have shown there is a demand for subscription-based online services. However, as David Eccles points out: "Most subscriptions are acquired through LEAs rather than individual schools signing up for them." Broadcasters like BBC Education and 4Learning look set to play a bigger role in the development of digital content and the provision of online services, and if digital television becomes widespread, they could provide a lot of content via the TV screen.
Although almost all schools now have an Internet link, few have high-speed, broadband connections. By the end of this school year, all secondary schools in England should have a two-megabit Internet connection (35 times faster than an ordinary telephone modem link), but even this will not allow a class-full of students to log on to the Internet at the same time. That is why Espresso has opted for using satellite to offer a high-speed connection to schools, with materials stored and distributed on the school's network. Espresso, which has more than 400 primary school subscribers, is launching a secondary schools service at BETT.
Despite the huge investment in ICT, many challenges remain. DFES figures state 76 per cent of primary and 70 per cent of secondary school teachers feel confident about using ICT, although some think these statistics too high. However, they still suggest that at least one in four primary and almost one in three secondary school teachers are not confident about using ICT. As we approach the final year of the NOF training programme, let's hope these figures improve. Another challenge is ensuring wider access to ICT for pupils of all backgrounds, and the e-Learning Foundation will be addressing this at BETT. And then there's sustainability. As Owen Lynch, chief executive BECTA, says: "People talk about sustainability in terms of having enough money to invest in ICT hardware or infrastructure, but sustainability in terms of practice is more important. ICT has to be key to improving quality of teaching and learning within a school and its management."
Over the past year, there has been much consolidation within the educational ICT industry. Granada Learning's empire, for instance, now includes Anglia Multimedia, Semerc, Letts, BlackCat, NFER Nelson and David Fulton publishers. But there are still many small companies to be found at BETT. "The best software has often been developed by small companies," says Barker. Companies such as Crick Software, AVP, Easy Peasy, The Skills Factory and a host of others prove this point. So remember, at BETT, some of the best things come in small stands.
George Cole is a freelance journalist and a former teacher