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Are we building schools for the future?

Rory Cellan-Jones | 09:40 UK time, Wednesday, 3 March 2010

In the last decade there's been a technology revolution in schools. Billions have been spent on computers for teachers and pupils, on installing wireless networks, on putting electronic whiteboards in just about every classroom - and on the IT suppliers who run school systems. But now there's mounting disquiet about this huge investment programme - and questions are being asked not just by politicians but by teachers about whether it's delivering what children need.

Radio 4's The World Tonight asked me to look at this issue. My focus was on Building Schools for the Future, the project to rebuild just about every school in England, with ICT a key element.

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A few weeks ago the principal of Bristol Brunel Academy, one of the first new schools to open its doors under the BSF banner, spoke at an education conference in Westminster. Armando di Finizio was reported in the Times as saying much IT spending had been wasted and that his school had been blighted by computer problems.

Both he and his superiors at Bristol's Building Schools for The Future project insisted that he had been misquoted in that article - but a transcript of the presentation he gave at the conference does show he expressed plenty of frustration about the technology. Here's some of what he said:

"We suffered with the ICT that's the one area of the school that... it's been very, very difficult and you do need your back-up plans. The school was designed to be completely wireless, it went for all the gimmicks and gismos and it was going to be fantastic. I have yet to see a school that works really effectively wirelessly."

When I went to see the Brunel Academy, Mr di Finizio was keen to accentuate the positive - and indeed there appeared to be plenty to be positive about. The school is in a light, airy building, there are 400 desktop computers for 1,000 pupils, and every child in years seven and eight has now been given a netbook computer of their own.

I saw one English class where a teacher was getting students to do presentations on a whiteboard using Powerpoint, another where the children were in enthusiastic groups, using their netbooks to work on maths problems.

But when you throw in projectors, electronic whiteboards, a wireless network and a swipecard electronic registration system it all adds up to a lot of money - £1.5m for the initial fitting-out, and then big running costs every year.

two schoolboys using a laptopSo has all that money been well spent? Mr di Finizo insisted that overall the school had got good value. But he conceded that a swipecard registration system had not worked - teachers preferred to register pupils themselves, albeit using an electronic system. And the wireless network had indeed fallen over under the strain of hundreds of students trying to use it at once. The school had needed to spend extra on a new one from a different supplier though the principal was hazy about how much that had cost.

And when I spoke to other people connected with Building Schools for the Future, in Bristol and elsewhere, a disturbing picture emerged of a project which teachers struggled to make work for them. A common theme was of over-ambitious new building schemes that were so inflexible that the technology was out of date or not fit for purpose by the time schools opened. I heard of huge frustrations about contracts with IT suppliers which head teachers felt did not deliver what their schools needed.

One example - several people told me of contracts which meant that every time a school wanted to upgrade software, or even install something free like Mozilla Firefox, they had to pay a hefty fee to their contractor. That meant they were reluctant to change anything, with the result that software was soon out of date.

Here's how one local authority IT administrator summed it all up:

"They've been sold a lot of the wrong stuff, A lot of it isn't fit for purpose - lots of money has been spent and nobody seems to know where it's gone."

It's a picture which will be familiar to many who work in organisations which embark on major technology projects where control is handed over to external suppliers and the staff are left feeling they have little say.

That's not to say that some teachers aren't being inventive in their use of new technology without spending large sums. I spoke to Tom Barrett, a Nottinghamshire primary school teacher, who's part of network of like-minded individuals trying out new methods. Tom told me about a lesson where he was teaching probability by asking friends on the Twitter social network to predict the likelihood of snow in their part of the world.

It sounded like an engaging lesson - and the technology cost nothing. Of course there are computers and electronic whiteboards in Tom Barrett's school - but he says using free software or indeed gadgets like mobile phones which children bring to school themselves means added flexibility: "I think some of the larger scale projects like Building Schools for the Future... have been guilty of taking too long to roll out." The danger then, he says, is that the technology moves on, whereas with free software you can keep up to date at no cost.

Nobody I spoke to wanted to go back to chalk and talk, dump the computers, and leave children to make their own way in the digital age. But there was a growing recognition that spending big sums on kit did not necessarily deliver better education.

The symbol of the school IT spending spree is the electronic whiteboard. But I met plenty of teachers who were not convinced that an interactive board costing several thousand pounds was essential, especially in an education system where a teacher standing at the front lecturing silent rows of rapt children is now seen as old hat.

When I was at school way back in the last century, another technological revolution was sweeping the country in the form of language laboratories. But rooms full of expensive reel-to-reel tape recorders proved an ineffective way to teach languages and were quickly abandoned.

The computer revolution will continue to transform education - but will some of its manifestations look irrelevant as the language lab a few years from now?

Comments

  • Comment number 1.

    Interesting piece. With due respect to @tombarrett, he's not involved in BSF as he teaches in primary. What he can do in one classroom doesn't necessarily generalise across large secondaries. Which is not to say that his and Armando's criticisms have no validity.

    I think there have been problems re "shiny" techs in headline establishments, poor communications between planners/builders/teachers, lack of pedagogic focus.

    Some initiatives like Curriculum Online and ELCs were almost totally wasted. Personally fear same may be true of current push to VLEs. Not enough consideration in such initiatives of appropriate technology and there has been a lack training.

    Too often tech drives development plans rather than a strategic view of what the school's key goals are and how tech contributes. There has also been insufficient monitoring of impact at school level and lack nationally in actually applying lessons of impact studies.

    Too many high profile, headline initiatives have been based on media splash without consideration of delivery processes.

    That said, tech is essential for delivery and monitoring of modern education and equipping young people. But too much of the national agenda has been on functional aspects rather than on equipping learners for life in tech-dominated world and truly enabling teachers to teach better.

    As for IWBs, you give an example of positive use and then suggest money wasted. Contradictory? Issues of lack of training/support/resources. Thus teachers not getting value and unimpressed. But many teachers would not want to be without their whiteboard.

  • Comment number 2.

    Rory,

    You make some very valid points about the BSF, but the points that you have made can also be applied to Schools in general.

    Sometimes the existing Technical Staff's opinions are ignored by Senior Teaching Staff and Consultants who seem to have a Blue Skies approach, with little or no technical background and explaining the limitations of equipment is seen as a negative input. I work very hard within my job role to find positive input, but much of the time these 'awkward' questions about technology have to be asked of suppliers.

    This blue skies approach is not helped by the companies who can get involved.

    ICT in schools is very different to that in business, where else would your entire user base decide to log off and on again every hour? - Most educational suppliers in the BSF program do understand this, but plenty of 'Consultants' do not.

    In my experience Schools find it difficult to understand the idea of an 'Operational Cost' and a 'Capital Cost', and very little thought is put into making the existing technology sustainable. A example of this would be the provision of iPods to every pupil. It will be interesting to see how Staff react to them in 24 months time when all of the non-replaceable batteries do not last more than an hour. I feel that is a prime example of technology not being fit for purpose.

    Working in a SEN school, Interactive Whiteboard use is actually on the increase here. New Staff tend to expect it and will use it to its potential. The issue here is training and we are trying to address that. We also have a wireless system here, identical to the one that a local secondary has. Whilst it has come across the same problems that Bristol has with capacity in the secondary school, here it has more than adequate capacity for the workload that is expected of it and we have predicted that it will have for 8-10 years.

    On this note the failure in your example would seem to be with not understanding the network capacity required to give a student a laptop each, and that the money seems to have been spent on the laptops (which have a 4 year lifespan) rather than the infrastructure that underpins it (which should have a longer lifespan than a few months!). This would be like having 20,000 postmen to deliver mail and a single chap sat in a room doing all of the sorting!

    The push for VLE's is also another area that I worry about. Currently there are some very large and expensive programs being rolled out in a one size fits all model and Staff seem reluctant to create resources for them. I feel that they will turn out to be the equivalent of a Homework Diary, which I had at School and cost a few hundred pounds to produce each year, not millions!

  • Comment number 3.

    Technology is great in schools, it fires children's imaginations and as in their home has become part of their everyday life. Shame then that I've just been informed by my employer, the local education department, that because I'm a teacher, I must not have any pupils, ex-pupils or parents as friends on any social networking site and must delete any that I do have! Apparently this is for my own good. Where this leaves me when I'm supposed to follow the National Curriculum and am supposed to involve the use of mail and social networking, I don't know. What next? Perhaps they'll forbid me to have any contact with children.

  • Comment number 4.

    This is another example of "Let's throw some money at it and make ourselves look good" or “This will be great for the children, but we don’t know our back from our front”... But who's co-ordinating it? Just because it looks good on paper don't mean you can come up with an idea and then let the contractors make it "just right."

    I think time and red tape are the bane of most projects, not to mention the odd idiot and lack of understanding of what the people we pay to do these jobs actually want and need. On top of that you have contractors trying to make a fast buck and not enough transparency (as usual) and complete lack of communication.

    We need more people in all the public sectors that have a strong short, medium and long term outlook on these issues. Maybe a team in each area that has a level of expertise in the given field and a background in technology, who have the time to talk to the teachers (doctors, police ect), and are not afraid of the people pulling the purse strings or making the headlines.

    I'm sure someone will point out a list of governing bodies which already "do" what I’m suggesting...

  • Comment number 5.

    It's an interesting comment from schools that shows that suppliers are creaming off the fat with heavy support fee's that in the end will keep the technology way behind. It also looks like this will join the long list of Government IT projects that have cost huge amounts of money, fallen behind schedule (NHS IT project springs to mind) and in the end will not delver real value for our money.

  • Comment number 6.

    A few bugbears I’ve come across; applicable in organisations outside education and training too I imagine.

    The first is technologically illiterate management deciding something is a good idea, without first checking with their front-line staff whether it is practical or desirable.

    An example I’ve encountered a few times is when manager X decides it’s a good idea to upgrade to the latest version of software, without first checking whether the PCs have the spec. to actually run it.
    The result is the software stays in its box, or worse still, manager X insists it is installed, resulting in a PC that crashes every five minutes or refuses to work.

    Management getting hold of a pot of money and deciding to spend it on new IT kit without considering future costs of upgrading software. And things move fast in the tech world.

    How many IT suites are still running Windows 2000 or XP (and the office suites from that time) because they can’t afford to upgrade? Or, worse still, in order to upgrade software they’d have to first replace all their PCs – and the money simply isn’t there. (A situation that is likely to get worse over the next few years with public sector cuts and budget freezes.)

    Management also are also in the position of doing the buying of equipment without knowing enough about technology (and often not consulting people that do) to judge whether the equipment or specification will actually be fit-for-purpose (ignorance tech company sales staff do exploit).

    Having the company that installed and maintains your equipment going bust really can leave you high and dry. You can be left without software discs, admin passwords - the lot.

    Contractors vary; but having tech staff ‘in-house’ really can make a noticeable difference to efficiency by repairing equipment etc at the time it’s needed.
    With contractors you often have to wait for their next scheduled visit (they charge an-arm-and-a-leg for unscheduled call-outs) to get something fixed.
    Of course contractors are justified because they’re thought to cost less overall than full-time staff (plus NI, pension contributions etc.)

    As for whiteboards – I use mine as a projector screen. The educational software that came with it was very pretty but not applicable to my subject.
    We changed contractors a few years ago (the original one kept hold of the software discs) and then it was decided to upgrade the OS of our PCs.
    To do that the new contractors first reformatted all the hard drives (so we lost the programmes) and then installed software from their own discs.
    They didn’t have our whiteboard’s software (they use another firm’s whiteboards) with the result that if we wanted them back working we’d have to re-purchase them.

    We couldn’t approach ‘our’ whiteboard company because the contracts state that everything has to be done through the contractors. (In fact the whiteboard company technically sold the whiteboards to the contractors who then installed them and passed the costs onto us, so we weren’t seen as the whiteboard company’s real customer.)

    Of course by then we’d also lost the whiteboard pens (it happens) or they become broken and couldn’t afford to replace even those. (They ain’t cheap!)

    Still, at least I’m not dependent on a whiteboard – in fact all I asked for was a projector screen which would have cost several thousand pounds less.

    Did I mention colour laser printers? Again a manager decided to get one because a company offered one at a very low price, not realising how much it cost to replace the all-in-one toner cartridge (which is what really makes the manufacturer money) or just how often the colour cartridge would need replacing given the demands of education.
    (The teaching staff advised against colour BTW. It wasn’t seen as essential for their work or for learner assessments; they also had an idea as to the costs involved and preferred the money spent on other things.)

    Once the bills started coming in it was hastily decided to replace it with a B/W printer and the colour printer disappeared into the head’s office; he now tries not to use it if at all possible.

    Before this is all turned into a political football – of course education does need ICT; young people have to be equipped with the skills required by employers when they leave education; tech can play a really useful role in teaching and learning.

    The main constraint is money of course, which explains why so much is now sub-contracted and not done in-house.
    A major problem is the fast changing nature of technology which is impossible to keep up with without a large budget.

    I’m unconvinced there ever will be a wholly satisfactory solution to this. I certainly can’t see one arising in the next few years given the size of national debt and the cuts that are likely to follow the election, regardless of who wins.

  • Comment number 7.

    As a business we have installed numerous wireless LAN installations for schools in the local area, we and they, have found wireless a great success story for the school. We have worked closely with theses schools understanding their needs, requirements and specifying a Cisco WLAN solution that fits their needs and budgets, deploying the system on time, on budget and to the benefit of the school.

  • Comment number 8.

    None of this stuff is unique to the educational establishment. The same profligacy and blind "buying" afflicts commercial organisations. The difference is that private business keeps its failed (or grossly over budget and under function) IT projects out of sight.
    Crudely, governments and businesses should buy their technology the same mean way that supermarkets buy their stock. Buy what delivers the organisation's objectives, and keep control.

  • Comment number 9.

    Sadly Rory, many of your comments are true and worrying, however you must recognise that the school in question was one of the first through the process and was using systems that were over bureaucratic and very risk-averse.

    As the process has become more mature, I'm sure that if you visited some more recent opening schools, such as in Lewisham where all the lessons learned in the first wave were rigorously applied, then you'll find schools where there is a whole school vision of what's needed and possible, together with contractors that really do work closely with the school to provide flexible systems that schools are very happy with.

  • Comment number 10.

    Are we building schools for the future of what?
    In my oponion, we are building schools for the future of rote, enhanced by computer technology.
    The most important computer that students need to train is the one that lies under the hair, above the eyes and between the ears.
    They must learn to think with logic, check facts, form own opinions, write in whole words, debate, and become the most rationale generation that we have ever-produced. This world needs independent thinkers - thinkers that can challenge the status quo and live comfortably outside the box.
    Ask a kid a question. Listen to the answer. In all probability you will get rote.
    I asked a child, "Who discovered America?" and he said Columbus.
    I asked another child and she said, "Americus Vespucci". Though I was impressed that she could pronounce the name, in fact both students were wrong.
    Had they been encouraged to debate among themselves, research at the library, or otherwise engage their minds, they might have answered: the Vikings, or some other interesting well-thought-out response that could've furthered the debate.
    All I am saying is that if you teach a child to think, to reason, to trust his own mind, you have given him the greatest of gifts. He will use this gift everyday of his life (and perhaps beyond). He may even question: "Why do we need computer technology in elementary schools?"
    Why is it so important to teach computer skills when these skills change quicker than fashion? Schools can't keep up; teachers can't keep up. Too much time is being wasted in fixing the technology and teaching rote - time that could be spent in teaching the art of thinking.

  • Comment number 11.

    @jayfurneaux

    "I’m unconvinced there ever will be a wholly satisfactory solution to this"

    Maybe an "IT Champion" for each region, someone who is from a professional IT back background who has no personal gain (or maybe a vested interest, such as having a pupil in their area) from the design and implementation of ITC in schools. Someone who will visit each site and discuss the needs with managers and teachers (and students) alike give informed information to Heads, Area managers and anyone else who might need to be involved in this process. Information such as initial cost, sustainability and other unforeseen costs and implications which a professional might foresee.

    This person could then oversee the implementation in the schools in their area, knowing which companies and contractors to trust. This person might even have a small team of people to offer support to their area so simple problems do not have to be outsourced. These “IT Champions” would also find the time to network with each other to discuss ideas and keep informed on progress on recent projects.

    In short each council could have a “mini IT department” to help all the schools in their area. But like you said I can’t see this arising in the next few years due to the cuts. Although if education officials are serious about getting ICT in to schools in a cost efficient way this might save some much needed funding in the long run… but since when does anyone in power these days see the long run?

  • Comment number 12.

    Having worked for 8 years as an "ILT Champion" in a Sixth Form College, I agree that you need specialists who understand both IT and education to make ICT work to a school's benefit. Sadly my former college did not see the continuing need for a high level of expertise to enthuse about the use of technology to support and enhance learning and teaching across the curriculum - and then make it happen - and I have been made redundant.

    As I am looking to move towards senior management hopefully some lucky school will get this expertise along with their brand new Assistant Head/Head of Sixth Form or whatever it is I get hired as!

  • Comment number 13.

    @ BluesBerry

    From the name I assume you are a techno-nay-sayer. Unfortunately tech is the future and a foundation in this is essential. I wish my schooling was as challenging as the picture you paint (left college education without A-Levels 2005/06 and went on to do a professional qualification (MCP) in my own time). Maybe we can use technology to create this atmosphere in learning by giving children something they can relate to in this generation of Playstation babies, to encourage them to learn through play (which it the way toddlers learn, if my Child Development lessons serve me correct, and show me any adult that enjoys their job that doesn’t want to learn more about it) as well as to help them think for themselves and collaborate. The future will need programmers as much as it will need soldiers, nurses and drivers, but education is always key. I don’t need to know who discovered America in my job, I can google it if I need to know, but how does it affect me now? What is more concerning is I can’t name a large number of birds just by looking at them, but I can for a large majority of car manufactures.

    You can’t blame technology for societies failings.

  • Comment number 14.

    Computers in schools are great, if they are used correctly. They are, for example, of little use in maths, as typing out equations is time consuming, and the exam is done on paper anyway. Other subjects have more use for them. For example, when I did my Advanced Higher Physics investigation, I used an ultra sonic ranger connected to a laptop to measure the oscillation of a steel beam. This piece of kit was great, as it plotted graphs and tables that could be exported to excel spreadsheets. The difference between this and most IT in schools was that this had been bought using the physics department's money by the teacher. This is where individual teachers should be given more of a say over IT upgrades. When an order to change a working system is sent from an education board it is often fantastic in principle, but in the real world it doesn't hold up to the pressures of daily life in a school.

  • Comment number 15.

    The problem with the Building Schools for the Future (https://www.lga.gov.uk/lga/core/page.do?pageId=286559%29programme is that it takes all the choice and control away from the parents, teachers and headteachers and puts it in the hands of the local authority and the suppliers. The Jury Team's (https://www.juryteam.org%29 goal is to give parents more input into their childs education.

    The Jury Team proposes that parents should be given the chance to vote on whether their school will opt out of local authority control (https://www.juryteam.org/p09-school-opt-out.php%29. In doing this the teachers would get back the professional respect they deserve, the Head Teachers will be able to run the school with limited interference, and most importantly parents will have choice and control over what and where their children are educated.

  • Comment number 16.

    ‘Shame then that I've just been informed by my employer, the local education department, that because I'm a teacher, I must not have any pupils, ex-pupils or parents as friends on any social networking site and must delete any that I do have! Malcolm Glover.’ #3

    There have been similar discussions (thankfully involving classroom teachers) in my local authority and we reached much the same conclusion as your employer.

    Most Local Authorities are implementing similar policies. I imagine private schools and colleges will be thinking along similar lines. There are good reasons for these policies.

    You need to clearly distinguish between your professional self (and professional life) and your personal self (and personal life). It’s about boundary setting.
    It’s also about protecting a) your privacy and b) your personal time and personal life.

    To give one reason for not including pupils on your personal social networking page, although you will have been CRB checked it is unlikely that all those on your Friends list will have been. Some people are very particular about who to allow as Friends on FB (I am), some accept Friend requests from complete strangers; that introduces risk. Protect yourself (and your pupils).

    You can still use social networking sites as part of class/project work but any account needs to be set up as a separate account from your personal one (it just needs an email address), clearly named as such, open only to course members & yourself (no other unsolicited Friends) and if possible, either members are deleted when the course is over or the entire account is closed. Ditto using Flickr, Youtube, blogs etc.

    Facebook offers easily managed discussion groups to be set up for free. You can keep prying eyes out by setting the privacy to allow only invited members to join. This way, students can converse online and you can monitor the discussion.

    Google: guidance to teachers social networking sites

    There’s quite a lot of advice out there, much in pdf format.

  • Comment number 17.

    The issue here is not the technology: Electronic whiteboards work well, as do wireless networks: Often the success or failure of technology in schools come down to the expectations of the user (the teacher, the student), the ability of the purchaser to undertake effective due diligence and understand what they are being sold, and choosing a vendor that is proven.
    There are some great success stories of the use of technology in schools. For example the St Joseph's School case study in this month’s www.networkcommunicationsnews.co.uk that shows technology can work well. When wireless does not work, it’s not the wireless that fails, it’s the way the technology is implemented by the vendor. Particularly in the quickly maturing WiFi market, there are many small companies trying to sell something ‘unique’ to schools . The story here is not to get sidetracked by non-standard implementations of well proven technology, or try something radically different just because “Simon the Slick Salesman” says it will work. Stick with what works for businesses and universities, and the school implementation shouldn’t go wrong.

  • Comment number 18.

    I think the comments made about wireless are very true, and we have many schools with small to large scale wireless deployments. Wireless works well with limited number of clients connected however when the volume of clients increases we experience significant drop offs. With schools aspirations moving towards every child with a network all connecting to the wireless infrastructure at the same time things are just never going to work. This is a challenge for the wireless technology providers out there, and they really need to pull there finger out and come up with an affordable solution.

  • Comment number 19.

    I work in a secondary school and feel that one of the biggest problems faced is that schools , Head teachers and LA's are scared of a lot of technology such as facebook, youtube and twitter! All of these sites are blocked on the school internet and I feel this represents such a massive misunderstanding!
    The VLE's that are being pushed are also a joke! I don’t know how much they cost but from what I’ve seen so far I could do a MUCH better job in about an hour using something like facebook or myspace. This would however scare schools as they all seem to think that these sites are evil

  • Comment number 20.

    While we're on the subject of the future, is it wise to lock our schools into the Microsoft ecosystem? This entire MS system is full of [deliberate?] incompatibilities with any other solution, even other commercial ones.

    Take, for example, Internet Explorer. The entire web has suffered for its standards incompliance, and many large companies cannot now migrate from the (9 year old!!) IE6 because their apps were written to work only in this one particular browser. Some think that this was a deliberate move on the part of Microsoft to lock people into Internet Explorer and to hold back the development of the web, which threatened their business model. In fact, even though Microsoft wants to now move people away from IE6, it cannot.

    Another example: Microsoft Office. Until Office 2007, the file formats Microsoft Office programs defaulted to were completely proprietary and undocumented. This meant that the only way for other software developers (e.g. OpenOffice) to work out how the MS file formats worked was to reverse engineer them and to guess. Microsoft then pretended that it was introducing a new, transparent system in Office 2007. It, in the process, managed to implement a version of the xml spec that was completely wrong and fail to support the open document format (odf) correctly.

    Outlook, until 2007, used Internet Explorer's 'Trident' rendering engine to render html/css emails. This wasn't perfect, but it was nearly there. In Outlook 2007, however, Microsoft decided to change this to the Microsoft Word html rendering engine. This is utterly, disastrously terrible. In fact, you can see for yourself the vast swathes of capabilities that this wipes out at https://www.campaignmonitor.com/css/. This means that many old css-layout-based emails will not show properly in Outlook 2007, and, because Outlook has such a large market share, that everyone will have to revert to doing email design with tables, a horrific abberation of web design.

    Right now, my school is busy nailing itself into a Sharepoint coffin. Sharepoint, although I haven't ever used it personally, is well known for being really, really bad and very difficult to migrate away from. And this is despite the fact that free, open-source alternatives exist.

    As all of these examples show, if Microsoft decides that it doesn't want to support something, this pretty much wipes it out. If it, for example, in thirty years, had been outcompeted by an opponent (e.g. Canonical, Apple, Novell) in the desktop field---unlikely, but possible---it might just decide to dump the Windows division of its business entirely. Of course, our schools would still be locked in to the Microsoft solution that they chose thirty years previously: any attempts to move away would be foiled by the myriad of compatibility problems with a new system (the result, of course, of Microsoft's noncompliance in the first place).

    What would this mean?
    - No updates, even for gaping security holes. Microsoft's source is closed, and we are not allowed to modify it.
    - No new features.
    - Probably no new software. Developers move away.

    Eventually, of course, schools would escape. At massive cost. And almost certainly to just as bad a system.

    Let's not forget, of course, that Windows and the Microsoft ecosystem aren't even /that/ good. Considering that Microsoft is one of the biggest companies on the planet and holds a >90% market share on the desktop, GNOME and KDE (for example) certainly approach Windows in usability and, in some cases (error messages, software management), surpass it. The UNIX architecture beneath Linux and similar systems, although not perfect, is a lot better than Microsoft's mish-mash of old OSes and new. Software is often a sticking point: there's a lot of heavy duty commercial software available for Windows that isn't found on Linux, such as Adobe's Creative Suite. However, in as many, maybe more, cases the opposite is true: open source software (Mozilla Firefox) is better than the commercial or closed-source option (Internet Explorer). It's also worth bearing in mind that a lot of Windows binaries will now run perfectly well under WINE.

    So what do we do? Well, my suggestion would be to investigate using far, far more open source software and to possibly even use another OS on the desktop. A mature Linux distro such as Ubuntu looks to be a good fit for this role.

    In fact, using the money saved by not buying Windows licenses, we could contribute back to the parent open source projects by hiring a few programmers to work on them, thus helping everyone. If the government doesn't like the idea of singling out one company (in this case Canonical) and contributing to its product for competition reasons, then it could easily work on a freer distribution such as Debian.
    Even if one school still decided to be different and use, say, Fedora or a heavily customised version of Slackware, then it won't face the huge compatibility problems that would exist between, say, a school using Windows and another using OS X. Indeed, a school could use OS X or even BSD and remain fairly compatible.

    What would this mean?
    - Higher compatibility with other systems
    - Futureproof
    - Easy to switch from one solution/program to another
    - Improved security
    - Gives back to the community
    - Probably more reliable and probably faster
    - Subjectively, non-Windows admins tend to be better
    - Free
    - Allows complete customisation
    - If the OS ever stops being supported, the school can drop it and easily move to another because all the file formats etc. are open and will still be usable on the new platform. Alternatively, the government (or, as it happens, anyone who wants to) can keep supporting it because they have access to the source code.

    I have a feeling I might be about to unleash a flame war on myself here. Have fun.

  • Comment number 21.

    I rather fear that IT in schools is mainly, but not exclusively (Hopefully...) aimed at prodcing good little MS Office users. For a real back to basics lesson in IT, here's an excellent example that would probably never happen in UK schools. https://stop.zona-m.net/node/106

  • Comment number 22.

    @linuxrich I can assure you that this is exactly what is happening. The other day my IT teacher stated something basically along the lines of 'in the real world, Microsoft is all there is' to my class.
    I am tempted to suggest that they Google 'Apache'.
    But seriously, I am worried that children are essentially being taught 'click this button for bold text' etc. rather than any transferrable computing skills. In ten years that button is not likely to exist any more, and the people who have been taught to find 'that button' will not have the first clue how to reproduce its effect.
    It would be much better if something far more 'to the bare metal' was taught: although not necessarily instantly useful, it would remain relevant forever.
    Examples? Building a computer, boolean logic, C, HTML+CSS, etc.
    Although none of these things will help you produce a pretty looking presentation in the short term, they will endow you with a far better understanding of how a computer works.

  • Comment number 23.

    @linuxrich: This lesson does take place in British Schools or things very similar. Just not may, don't tar us all with the saem brush.
    BSF is basically strangling the innovation such things represent.
    There are groups of teachers up and down the country trying to do things that are somewhat more cost effective and sensible than the BSF approach but it is not easy.

  • Comment number 24.

    @U14349019

    Noted. I did leave an element of doubt in my post & it is good to hear from yourself and legio_noctis that there are people in the education system who seem to have a clue what teaching IT should be about!

  • Comment number 25.

    Here is an interesting concept how about getting them to read and add up correctly first!Or better still get them to use their imagination and start to question theories or why things work the way they do?
    Half of the teachers struggle with the new technology, but lets not get too focused on the technology and forget the real reason we are there to learn!
    In todays business world I see people that are great at using technology but utterly useless at putting a business plan together or researching stuff for a sales analysis etc, finding out who are competitors are etc?
    While I except they know how to use technology they are not very good at understanding risk and opportunities.
    May be half the problems the world has now is mainly due to what is being taught in education. After all these bright graduates that nearly ran the global economy into the ground all know how to use computers and thats about all!
    You also need to use alternative products like Open Office, Lotus, Novell, Google, Yahoo and Skpe for video conferencing etc.
    Do I expect the schools to teach this hmm toss up between this and home finance I guess much sooner they taught them about budgeting, applying for credit, understanding how interest is charged on mortgages etc.
    The schools are scared stiff of Facebook and Twitter in case things get out to the public. They will have the students and teachers signing confidentiality agreements next! Leakage of information to the press scares businesses too takeover bids and potential sales orders etc paranoia gone mad LOL!

  • Comment number 26.

    Here is a mega cost saving for education, switch all of your computers over to Open Office suite of programmes and stop paying annual user licenses for Microsoft Products!
    I use all of the Open Office Products far cheaper than Word or Excel etc.

  • Comment number 27.

    @22 - I don't know about anyone else, but I teach students the way in which to find the command that they want, not how to access function x directly.

    An early exercise is to research and do a 'compare & contrast' exercise on different packages to undertake the same function, extended to complete operating systems at Advanced level.

    And for those in search of a VLE, go for Moodle. It is free and easy to use, and there is plenty of technical advice. It does, however run far better on Apache/PHP/MySQL than on a Windows server with a Sequel database, but that's how it is written and optimised.

  • Comment number 28.

    As a parent fund raiser for a primary school, it was good to see electonic whiteboards and connectivity being used so well.

    Accessing free sites like emaths, even mushi monsters all looks cool. World maths day had some interesting competitions online worldwide yesterday. My son is picking lessons from very famous guitar players off youtube for free. It is quite something to behold. The University of Nottinghams efforts on the periodic table is also a great effort. I am sure the kids will create something better in the near future.

    I think it would be an interesting exercise if these private schools who get tax breaks should not be obliged to record all their lessons and publish online just so we can see what we are missing out on!

    I guess it's down to how these resources get used in the evening to push the digital inclusion message.

    There will be a big gap between the teachers knowledge and kids ability to absorb new information, so like at home we are all having to learn from each other.

    The important thing is we can access information and learn about any subject to any depth and engage with those writing the papers.

    Probably need to more kiddies games in foreign languages, my only suggestion.

    Well done everyone involved in this effort. Take a bow!

  • Comment number 29.

    Are we building schools for the future? Maybe. Are we educating children for the future - hell no!
    I'm a leader in a youth organisation dealing with 10-14yr olds. They can't spell, they can't count and they're not interested in doing anything for themselves. We struggle to find boys wanting to play football. They're so unadventurous that they don't even get themselves into trouble!
    Money would be better spent on teaching kids the basics and instilling a better work ethic into them, without that the country is stuffed.

  • Comment number 30.

    Well Rory, you pushed some sensitive buttons here.

    You know what? Kids know quite well how to use twitter, facebook, MS office or any other given program. At home or in computer labs in schools or libraries they find out for themselves and probably quicker and better than their teachers. So why you want any of this in the actual classroom? Learning coorperation skills? Who guessed we 'd need a computer for that?

    What I really do miss in this debate is the issue of didactis and pedagogy of computer assisted learing. Because there isn't hardly any research on this.
    Kids need to learn the basic skills, reading, writing, sciences, and ofcourse something like history. Which is more than retreaving facts from the internet. That has little to do with actual learning. And it seems the starting point of all this misguidance.
    IT is a tool and just a tool, not some great magic wand you wave your kids into better students. And we 're not there yet in understanding how we can exactly use these tools to get better learning results. It's still an ongoing and costly experiment. Well we might need to do this to move forward, but it will cost us.

    The alarming bit is, IT in education is now heavily implemented in developing countries. Can you just imagine what that actually means?

  • Comment number 31.

    The Cisco WLAN solution deployed at Bristol Brunel Academy which was never capable of handling the dense environment, has now been replaced by a Xirrus Hi Capacity Wi-Fi solution and the school is now running in excess of 500 client devices as originally intended and is capable of taking 1000+ and the Head, Mr di Finzio is delighted with the new platform now and has since press released the success of the new Wi-Fi demonstrating exactly why specialist Wi-Fi like Xirrus is an essential for BSF. Consultants need to pay less heed to analysts and stop listening to "Mike in Marketing" and actually deploy what is best for the school, not a solution based on what they are familiar with or from whom they play golf with. The more schools deploy laptops and netbooks, the more stories we will see like this until BSF realises that there are specialist solutions for Hi Capacity Wi-Fi like Xirrus.

  • Comment number 32.

    Surprisingly, councils have very little information on their BSF plan and what their visions for the projects are. If they cannot even supply their visions on the net for everyone to see, how could they expect the public to back the projects? I live in Essex and when I saw our EssexBSF.org website it immediately brought me to support the whole BSF IT visions. More information and less secretive from councils will help. Consolidation from public and teachers are the main area we need to show before we start building and none of the councils’ website really supply them in details or are difficult to find. Essex Council has set a good example of how to engage the public in the process. Start will a good website and build upon it to show the public what ythe council can do.

  • Comment number 33.

    Just flicking through looks like loads of opinion and people making personal points - with no facts or metrics. So just how is success measured and who is doing the measuring? What were the objectives and how are we doing? Objectively how does this compare to alternatives? What have we learnt and how can we improve?

    Poor article; get a load of opinions and make a story; journalistic trash.

  • Comment number 34.

    I used to teach English as a foreign language in an isolated part of rural Spain. I introduced technology to the classroom, and it revolutionised lessons. But reading about the state of tech in UK schools today, it seems that a lot of digital mud is being thrown against the wall, resulting in phenomenal waste of resources in the public sector. Teachers need to adopt new technology on their terms, not get shoe-horned into an IT consultants wet dream vision.

    For what its worth, the success of technology at my former school was not dependent on massive financial investment. The teacher (ie me) took the lead, not some predatory IT consultant. The teacher developed a multi media based style, and then found the technology required to deliver that approach to students.

    I smile at the mentions of whiteboards and never-ending costs for complex tech. I could do anything with a Mac laptop hard wired to a 256Kb internet modem, plus Google, shareware on-screen-writing software called Ultimate Pen, all connected to $50 surround sound speakers, an $800 digital projector and screen. It was exciting and liberating and the technology was simple, flexible and very very reliable.

    My enthusiasm for this sort of fluid digital classroom spread to the students, and I have no metrics, except the parents of 100 kids a year said their kids learnt more English with more enthusiasm than ever before. Not surprising, as students responded fantastically well to more relevant content delivery - instead of the usual blackboard and chalk routine, I used a mix of online quizzes, word puzzles, rote learning, exam questions, and a lot of music videos. (A generation of Spaniards can sing and translate and explain the hidden meanings in many top ABBA tunes!) They worked alone, in groups, as a whole, with me orchestrating at the front of the class, and the technology was low end, so didnt intrude with breakdowns or unreliability. And the technology influence went beyond the classroom, because after a while the students also realised I was introducing them to material ahead of its release in Spain. So they would "study" at home, checking out US and UK music lyrics, and following sites written in English.

    So, tech can work if the teacher is taking the lead and keeping on their toes, aided by technology - not vice versa.

  • Comment number 35.

    Good piece, Rory. It is about time somebody started investigating the huge waste of public money that is the result of the way Building Schools for the Future is organised.

    I speak as a Chair of Governors at a North London comprehensive undergoing BSF. Everybody involved agrees, off the record, that BSF wastes billions. The head of BSF locally came to our governing body and says "Yes. There is a big waste of money, but it isn't your money so please don't worry about it." (Some of us, as taxpayers, felt that it was actually our money.)

    ICT in particular has been a disaster. Our school had a strong ICT network before BSF, but a requirement of taking part in BSF (and our ageing building desperately needed refurbishment) was that we had to outsource the ICT to a supplier over whom we had no choice.

    The result has been hell for our teachers and students: About £1.5 million has been spent and the network is far less reliable than what we had before. The failure is acknowledged by all and the penalties for each of the last six months has been over 50% of the amount paid each month under the contract.

    Government believes best value and best service is delivered by massive conglomerates working under complex legal contracts. One day, after the tube fiasco, teh waste under PFI and now BSF, they will realise this is nonsense.

 

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