Are we building schools for the future?
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.
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.
So 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?