IT in The Primary School - What Governors Need to Know

Heather Govier
First published in MicroScope issue 49, Spring 1997

THE HISTORY

The (short) history of the use of information technology (IT) in the primary school has left a number of legacies which lie at the heart of all issues that governors must face today. Before the early eighties there were virtually no computers in the primary sector. A very few forward thinking Head Teachers (almost all male) had purchased a Commodore Pet machine which was used mainly with older pupils either for the practice of skills in spelling and arithmetic or for learning to program in the computer language BASIC.

Everything changed in 1982 when the Department of Trade and Industry (DTI) offered all primary schools a half price computer. It is important to note that it was the DTI and not the Department of Education and Science (DES) which was funding this scheme and the main objective was to boost the young British computer industry rather than to stimulate the effective use of IT in schools. Thus only three British made machines were on offer. These were, in ascending order of price, the Sinclair Spectrum, the BBC B and the Research Machines 480Z. The middle priced machine, which as also the one with "Aunty's" name attached, was far and away the most popular choice, although a not insignificant number of Local Education Authorities (LEAs) chose the 480Z which was the baby brother of the 380Z, then common in their secondary schools.

And, of course, it was the LEAs, not the individual schools, which made the choice. Firstly they were picking up the other half of the tab in those pre-LMS days and secondly they were responsible for providing the training and software support and most felt that this would be far more straightforward if they standardised on a single machine. The Sinclair Spectrum proved one of Clive's early flops (remember the C5?) and died a quick death as most software producers decided against writing for such a small market. It had been a relatively cheap machine and the joke at the time was that it was great for teaching arithmetic - you could buy five machines and children could solve problems such as:

If I had 2 Sinclair Spectrums and then got 3 more, how many would I have altogether?

One interesting early debate was to have significant long term consequences. The DTI claimed that it could not afford to offer both disk drives and colour monitors and there was discussion about which was most important to the primary schools. It was felt that young children must have colour, so the DTI machines were supplied with cassette loading. This caused major difficulties and alienated many teachers. Loading was unreliable, took several minutes (even when it worked) and had to be done all over again if someone inadvertently switched off the machine or tripped over a lead. Tripping over leads was a real hazard. To be fair, most teachers took great care to organise a safe working environment - but it was very difficult, as virtually all classrooms had a single power point at the front, near the blackboard. This is a very unsuitable position for a computer and so it was necessary to run a long lead around the walls to a preferable site.

For the first couple of years most schools had just one or two computers and these were kept on trolleys which could be moved from classroom to classroom to give everyone a turn. The nickable nature of the IT equipment presented further problems and so the trolleys were usually rolled away into a lockable cupboard at night. All of this took teacher time and energy and schools with stairs (know any that haven't?) had particular difficulties. Little wonder then that in many schools teachers were not exactly fighting for their turn to:

reorganise the classroom to accommodate the computer

collect the trolley before the lesson

set up and plug in

load BASIC from cassette

load the program from cassette

reload BASIC and program after an accidental switch off

put the computer away at the end of the lesson.

And what could you do with those early machines anyway? There was precious little good software at first and the larger, more meaningful programs took longer to load. One Head Teacher boasted that he had calculated that the pupil/computer ratio in his school gave each child seven minutes per day. Careful timetabling ensured that each child got his or her seven minutes on the same little program which had been loaded up first thing in the morning. Only software which could be "done" in seven minutes was used and, of course, there could be no integration with the rest of the curriculum. That Head might now cringe to remember his strategy but he was only trying to do his best with the resources available to him.

Things did get rapidly better. Disc drives were purchased, software quality improved, teachers went on training courses and schools bought more machines. The years from 1984 to 1988 were the halcyon days for the use of IT in the primary school when the excitement about the growth of this new area of education was almost palpable. It was fun to be in the field at that time. New software ideas were coming in thick and fast and schools were rapidly moving towards the "ideal" ratio of one machine per classroom. Children and teachers (some teachers) were stimulated by the new technology and our understanding grew of the myriad ways in which computers could help children learn.

But the early days left a five part legacy which was thrown into relief when, in 1988, the National Curriculum gave teachers a lot more to think about and the development of IT use was put on the back burner.

 

THE LEGACY

1 Management

It became clear that IT use in primary schools only really took off when the Head Teacher (or possibly the Deputy Head Teacher) was an enthusiast. This was for two reasons. Firstly the general management of computer hardware and software was such a burden that it took someone without a specific class responsibility to handle it comfortably. Those enthusiastic Heads personally took charge of getting the machine out, setting it up and moving it from room to room and many also spent hours working at the computer with small groups of children. Secondly it needed a good curriculum leader to inspire the staff and to persuade them that the learning benefits justified the use of what was really quite unfriendly equipment. Schools which made best progress were often those in which the Head chose to specialise in some particular growing area such as data handling or the use of simulations and much innovative work was driven by the energy of Head Teachers. The result was a growing gulf between leading edge schools and the rest. A gulf which is still apparent today.

Another management issue has been the role of the IT Coordinator. Even before IT became a National Curriculum subject in its own right (after the Dearing Review) the majority of schools had nominated someone to act as IT coordinator. In most cases the job was concerned almost exclusively with providing technical support - an almost impossible task for a teacher with full class responsibility and little (if any) release time. However, the very existence of the coordinator encouraged other teachers in the school to feel that technical issues were not their domain. Even the simplest of technical problems led to the coordinator being called in to help and, where such problems were frequent, class teachers felt de-skilled and incompetent. Today the IT Coordinator's job should be very different. As in the case of the coordinators of all National Curriculum subjects, the work should be mainly curriculum planning and leadership - developing policies and schemes of work to ensure that pupils' IT education is progressive and continuous. But the legacy of IT coordinator as technician, and the problems associated with this, remain.

The gender imbalance in IT enthusiasm is a third cause for concern at management level. A disproportionate number of those enthusiastic Head Teachers and IT coordinators are male. This sends undesirable messages to children and must exacerbate the gender differences in attitudes to IT widely found amongst pupils at secondary level. Primary schools have always denied any gender bias in their teaching and certainly girls under the age of 12 seem to enjoy computer work just as much as their male peers, but attitude development and change is a very complex process, subject to subtle influences. Role models observed in the primary school could well influence life choices made much later. And children are not the only ones subject to such influences. Only a female teacher could have readily confessed, as recently as last term,

"I have never really been able to get on top of computers. I must get round to it one day."

 

2 Organisation

Although the days of the seven minutes per machine have now gone, computers are still not fully integrated with the rest of the curriculum in many schools and the use of the machine as a reward for finishing early is still not unknown. Aspirations have changed. The ideal ratio of one per classroom has shifted and many would even like to see one per child! Certainly this would mean that everyone could have access to word processing facilities at the same time, which could revolutionise the teaching of written composition. There are already some primary schools in Britain which have a laptop for each pupil and the enthusiastic Heads (!) of these schools rave over the changes that this level of resourcing has brought about.

But children in most schools must still share the equipment and how this is done is in the hands both of the classroom teachers and the senior managers. Where there are a couple of machines in each classroom teachers may organise a rota of use to ensure that all get a fair turn with each piece of software. In other classrooms, use is more spontaneous, with children electing to work at the computer when they feel that it is appropriate. This may lead to better integration of IT into the curriculum but carries the danger of uneven use across the class with those who are most competent and enthusiastic getting the most time on the machines.

The piecemeal acquisition of computers has dictated their distribution around the school. The model in secondary schools has been very different. In that sector there are IT labs full of computers which may be used by a whole class at a time. This was not possible in the primary schools at first because there were too few machines but many schools now have a dozen or so computers which would be quite adequate to allow a whole class to work together in groups of two or three. Few schools have really considered the pros and cons of reorganising their equipment in this way but, with teachers being urged to do more whole class teaching, the possibilities need to be explored. Finding the extra classroom is a whole different problem!

 

3 Hardware

Nearly all primary schools have a lot of old stock which is unreliable and outdated. This is frustrating to teachers and severely restricts the ability of the school to meet the demands of the National Curriculum. The intellectual stimulation of trying to do all your writing without the use of the letter K (because the K on the keyboard no longer works) is no compensation! Few schools have adequate upgrade budgets and this is partly because computers have always been thought of as capital assets rather than consumables. But IT does have a limited life and it is essential that schools come to terms with this fact and with the need to replace stock rather than just add to it. A number of schools are now considering leasing as an alternative to purchase of equipment and although this appears to be considerably more expensive in the long term the differences are less marked when the cost of service agreements is included. The great advantage of leasing is that it forces schools to set aside an earmarked sum of money for IT and that after the term is up (and possibly even during the term - depending on the lease arrangements) all the equipment can be upgraded for just a little extra charge.

The second hardware legacy is the school's wiring. Few schools have been built since 1980 and many have buildings which date from Victorian times. The single power point by the blackboard has now be supplemented in most classrooms but what about the installation of telecom connections or cabling to allow computers throughout the school to communicate with one another? Networking of various kinds, especially the use of the Internet, is the growth area of the nineties in society at large and, although its use in primary schools is still limited, it is bound to develop. Various political parties have made promises about getting all schools on-line. Even if these promises are kept you can bet that they will not include wiring up every classroom! *

 

4 Software

Mention software to teachers and many will immediately think of floppy discs - some even the really floppy, five-inch discs used by the BBC computer. The management of software in this form has been a major difficulty for schools since they acquired disc drives. In a well organised school, each class would have its own set of discs of programs suitable for the age of the children and these would be clearly labelled and appropriately housed. Blank, formatted discs would be available to store children's files and these too would be well labelled so that all pupils could find their own work quickly and easily. But we are not all the best of organisers and it is easy to see how a more casual approach to labelling and storage might lead to the frustrations of faulty discs and lost work. Fortunately modern machines have hard discs, which make software management a much simpler task and this is yet another reason why schools really need up-to-date kit. All that is required now is an annual spring clean to throw out old files. The backing up of important work files and the secure storage of programs on master discs is also to be recommended, although hard discs are generally very reliable and those insurances are seldom called upon.

The second software legacy bedevilling schools is a set of unrealistic expectations about prices. Early educational computer programs were cheap - they were often even free! Soon after the DTI hardware offer, the Department of Education and Science set up the Microelectronics Education Programme (MEP) to support the use of IT in schools. The MEP provided training on a "cascade" model by running courses for LEA advisory teachers and the Primary Project of the MEP also provided software, supplied free to LEAs who were then able to copy it for all their schools. Many of the MEP programs were garden shed products, written at home by enthusiastic amateurs who worked long into the night, more for the intellectual challenge of programming than for the profit motive. Much commercial software was also produced in this way and was sold at give-away prices - a typical primary school program might cost 15. This software mainly consisted of useful little programs (ULPs) aimed at developing particular skills in particular subjects - the use of grid references for mapwork or an understanding of basic English grammar, for example. But such programs are now used less and less and the emphasis is on software tools such as a word processor, a paint program or a database, which may be used in many different ways across the whole curriculum. Sophisticated software of this type cannot be developed in a garden shed! It usually takes a huge commercial team many thousands of hours to produce. You can't buy it for 15. 150 is more realistic. Here is another major demand upon the tightly stretched finances of the primary school.

 

5 Staff Training

When the half-price machines went into schools, the contract involved a commitment by the school to send two persons on a training course. The idea was that this pair would then return to their own school and pass on what they had learned to the rest of the staff. This "cascade" model never worked, largely because the two day training course provided for the two teachers was inadequate to equip them with the necessary competence, and more importantly, confidence, to undertake the training of their colleagues. The courses did not even really prepare the teachers to use IT effectively in their own classrooms as most concentrated almost entirely on technicalities with very little time left to consider educational issues. It became clear that only long course (20 days or so) could really begin to increase teachers' confidence as well as their understanding of the role of IT in teaching and learning and thus have any significant impact on classroom practice. Such courses are expensive and only a small minority of teachers have had the opportunity to attend them. The situation is unlikely to change*, as many LEAs, strapped for cash as increasing proportions of their budgets have been delegated to school under LMS, have cut the numbers of IT advisory teachers, which means that they are unable to run long courses even when schools are willing to pay for them. And not many school are willing - what with so many other pressing INSET needs. But an extensive, deep, thought-provoking course can make an enormous difference to the way a teacher uses IT and the benefit her pupils derive from it. What greater dividend might a good, long course for Head Teachers pay?

Furthermore, IT INSET demands are never ending. Even in that hypothetical school where every member of staff has attended a 20 day course, developments in technology will require teachers to learn new skills. Industry recognises, and budgets for, regular updating of staff expertise in IT. Schools must begin to do likewise.

 

THE GOVERNORS' ROLE

So what can governors do to address the many issues arising from this legacy?

Well, of course, not all schools are troubled by all of the problems described above and the first step is to ensure that review of IT is a regular feature of the Whole School Development Plan. Such a review should look carefully at each of the issues; management, organisation, hardware, software and teacher skills and decide which need addressing and in what order of priority. An OFSTED inspection might help in identifying shortcomings in, say, curriculum coverage or teacher expertise or it might be helpful to instigate an IT audit along the lines suggested in a document produced by the National Council for Educational Technology entitled Reviewing IT (see below for the full reference).

The next step is to make sure that you have a clear, up-to-date IT Policy which is practical enough to inform your decisions about development (see MicroScope 46 for a sample Policy). If the principal aim is to integrate IT fully throughout the curriculum, then machines in classrooms (perhaps augmented by some laptops) will be the way forward. If, however, it is felt more important to ensure that the skills of the IT National Curriculum are fully developed for all pupils, then you may wish to consider putting all the machines in one room with timetabled access for every class. These are important decisions and it goes without saying that the Head Teacher and staff will have a major say in them. But governors too have a contribution to make in this area where teachers do not share a uniform view and may have limited knowledge of the alternatives.

The Whole School Development Plan and the Policy are jobs for the whole governing board but there is plenty of work too for committees.

The Curriculum Committee should be familiar with the National Curriculum for IT which is now quite clear and specific about the skills pupils need to develop. What the National Curriculum does not do, is specify how these skills should be developed. The school will need a scheme of work to describe what is to be covered in each year and how this is to be assessed (a sample Scheme of Work is now (July 1998) available from the DfEE/QCA). This is work for the professionals but governors have a monitoring role and should satisfy themselves that schemes of work are in place and do ensure continuous and progressive learning in IT throughout the primary years. But IT is not just a curriculum area in its own right. It is also a tool, for use in all other subjects of the National Curriculum. Thus the policies and schemes of work for all other subjects will need to refer to opportunities for IT use, and this too should be monitored by the Curriculum Committee.

The Staffing Committee will need to consider the IT training and development needs of staff, the role of the IT coordinator and the importance of IT skills when seeking to make new appointments. Much has been said above about the ongoing training requirements of teachers but the committee should also look at the needs of support staff such as classroom assistants and even voluntary helpers in the school. Inviting these groups to IT training days could be very fruitful, improving both the quality of their work with children and their self-esteem as valued members of the school community.

Another issue to consider is whether or not the IT coordinator has more to do than coordinators of other subjects and whether an appropriate amount of release time is given for this workload. Perhaps it is time for a reshuffle of responsibilities anyway, especially if your coordinator is the only male teacher in the school. If there is a staff vacancy, the governing body may wish to seek actively for someone who can increase the general IT expertise on the staff. This is a particularly pertinent issue if you are looking for a new Head Teacher or Deputy Head Teacher.

The Special Educational Needs Committee should be aware of the major impact that IT can have in addressing many areas of special need. This vast subject is outside the scope of this article but BECTa have produced a number of publications which can help with this (see below).

This committee may also be the place to consider wider differentiation issues. How is IT being used to stretch the brightest children? Has the school looked into the possibilities of Integrated Learning Systems (ILS) to develop pupils' mathematical or English language skills through individualised learning programmes? Integrated Learning Systems are currently very expensive and are unlikely to be of immediate relevance to most primary schools but they are likely to be a growth area and you should be aware of the possibilities. Again BECTa can help, with a booklet which describes the evaluation of ILS in British schools.

The Buildings Committee will have a major task on its hands if your school wishes to set up a computer lab. Can space be found for this, perhaps by moving the library or by finding some new area suitable for small group work? For small schools, shoe-horned into tiny buildings, even the question might be risible!

Even if the computers are staying in the classrooms you will need to look at cabling needs to use your allocated NGfL money. Are there sufficient power points and are these appropriately sited? Where should the networking connections for Internet access be placed?

The Finance Committee admittedly has the biggest headache. Where can the money be found to do all of this?

Here, I can provide no help!

* It is a big mistake to make predictions!  This article got it wrong on two counts.  First, the National Grid for Learning funding does include money to wire up every classroom.  Check with your LEA if you have not yet had your share.  Second, the NOF funded training for teachers offers exactly the type of course which I advocate.  Make sure that you plan to make full use of your school's 450 per teacher.

 

References

All from BECTa, Milburn Hill Road, Science Park, COVENTRY CV4 7JJ

Reviewing IT (ISBN - 1 85379 262 4)

Access Technology - making the right choice: Using information technology to
support the learning of students with special needs
(ISBN - 1 85379 326 4)

ILS (Integrated Learning Systems) - a report of the pilot evaluation of ILS in the UK
(ISBN - 1 85379 310 8)

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