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Wednesday, 10 May, 2000, 06:45 GMT 07:45 UK
Technology in schools: Ask Michael Wills
Michael Wills answers your e-mails
The government is spending more than 1bn putting computers and internet connections into England's schools by 2002.

The Learning and Technology Minister, Michael Wills, has been touring the country to hear what teachers think, in a series of Classroom of the Future roadshows.

We asked you what you thought - and Michael Wills answered your queries, in an interview with BBC News Online's education editor, Gary Eason, webcast live from the Department for Education. Click on the link below to watch an archived version.

Your biggest single area of concern was funding - continuing funding to maintain the equipment going into schools in the years to come.

Mr Wills said he could not make specific promises because that was a matter for the Chancellor, Gordon Brown.

But he said the government was very well aware of the issue and "we're confident that more money will be coming into this area in the future, significant new sums".

He added: "I hope people will be reassured that we are fundamentally committed to these technologies. And let me reassure everybody that in our planning in the department we do not expect this to be a one-off shot."

Here is the full interview:

Eason: Matt Gowen has written to us from Ash Manor School in Surrey and he says: "In year three of the government's National Grid for Learning initiative our school has received only 5,000 to help equip a school with nearly a thousand students. We've had to appeal to local businesses for this vital equipment. How's the government intending to ensure that the funding actually reaches all schools fairly rather than being diverted or absorbed by local education authorities?"

And Eddie Morgan says: "What can the government do to prevent popular middle class well funded schools getting and gaining from the best, whilst schools in disadvantaged areas, with all the attendant problems, are left even further behind?"

So two issues there but, are you happy that the money is getting through as you intend it to?

Wills: Well I think two separate issues there. I mean one is about making sure that all schools have proper resources for all these critical new technologies and the second is whether there's been any improper diversion of resource. Now clearly if the latter is happening I want to know about it because we're not aware of any significant problems here. if it's going on anywhere in the country I'd like to know and we'll deal with it.

Now to go to the first question where there are much more complex issues, if I may say. We inherited a situation where provision was very patchy, the previous government had done very little indeed. When we came into office, for example, only one primary in six had access to the internet, I mean today it's something like two thirds and by 2002 every school in the country will have access to the internet.

So there's very uneven provision. Some schools have actually allocated their own resources and invested very well, other schools haven't, some schools were fortunate in being, as Eddie Morgan's e-mail suggests, in prosperous areas where parents were able to contribute a lot, in other areas of the country not so fortunate.

So we had a very patchy and uneven level of provision. We had to put the money in as quickly as we can to get up to a certain level of provision. Now inevitably not all schools are resourced equally and we think we've done a very good job in getting to where we've got to so quickly but we absolutely recognise it's not sufficient, it is not sufficient and we're going to have do more.

Now we have bid for a significant extra sum of money from the Chancellor. We'll have to wait and see whether we're successful in the outcome of the spending review in July - but we're confident that more money will be coming into this area in the future, significant new sums. I can't tell you how much, obviously, because that's a matter for the Chancellor but significant new sums will be coming into it.

Now, in deciding how we're going to allocate that money we're going to have to balance two things.

The first thing is clear that every school in the country has to have a certain baseline equalisation of provision - of course that's got to be the case - we can't have a situation where some schools are relatively privileged in this critically important area.

But equally we've got to make sure that in doing that - the process of equalisation - we don't discriminate against schools that have perhaps made quite big sacrifices to invest in these technologies ahead of the game - it would be quite wrong to say to those schools: "Look, you sacrificed in other areas, you've invested in this technology now I'm sorry you're just going to have to wait while other schools, which haven't been this entrepreneurial and far-sighted, haven't made those sacrifices, are going to now benefit from government funding disproportionately."

There's a balance to be struck there. But underlying it all is, we have to reward innovation, we have to reward those schools that have done well and are showing good practice with these technologies but equally we've got to make sure that there's no inequalities of provision. that would be unacceptable.

Eason: Now "significant extra money" is the phrase you've just used. A lot of people are concerned about what happens next, what happens after this initial investment and I know this has been an issue at the roadshows that you've been conducting around the country.

A whole stack of e-mails on this, just some examples: David White says all this is "potentially very exciting", he's enthusiastic about what's going on but he says he's concerned that little or no money will be available to schools in three or four years time when the technology needs updating.

Alistair McTurk: "Will the funding be guaranteed as on-going." Mike MacDonagh: "What reassurances can you give small schools that funding for computers and internet access will be continued in future years?"

Another example, Peter Hinton: "Installing broadband technology and computers in schools is one thing, providing money for running costs is another."

Now I know myself from talking to schools this is a big issue for them, how do they keep this going? What can you say to them about that?

Wills: Well first of all I recognise the concern. As you rightly say, the roadshows I've been doing up and down the country over the last few months, this has come up frequently and in a sense I think the government is a victim of our own success in this.

I think people are, you know, as one of your correspondents said, delighted, it's very good news, and slightly surprised. What I would say to them is: judge us by our actions so far.

We've put in huge sums of money, unprecedentedly large sums of money at a time when public spending has been kept under a very tight grip. The first two years of this government, we had to keep a very tight grip to get rid of the 28bn deficit that we inherited. Now we've done that but still also found the money for these technologies.

Now if we've done it at such a difficult time I hope people will be reassured that we are fundamentally committed to these technologies. And let me reassure everybody that in our planning in the department we do not expect this to be a one-off shot, we recognise that these technologies keep changing - Moore's law, computer power doubling every 18 months for any given pound of spending power - we recognise that continues to hold true and our job is to make sure that every child in this country has access to the best possible technology.

Technologies appropriate today will be hopelessly out of date in 10 years' time and we would be failing the children of this country if we expected them to make do.

Now of course there are issues around how precisely and how often we should refresh and renew the technology but it is built into all our funding assumptions for years ahead that these technologies will need to be replaced at some point and so there will be constant funding streams for that.

Also for all the sort of support that is needed, it's not just the core activity and the hardware, we reckon our schools have got to be able to invest in software and in the technical support. So all these factors are built in to our budgeting ahead.

I can't make promises about absolute levels of funding, it's in the Treasury's hands - the Chancellor's hand - what I hope people can take some long time comfort from - and I know schools are worried about how they're going to budget over the medium term, you know they've got to look ahead, not just next year but to successive years - I hope they'll take comfort from two things.

Firstly from the fact that as a government we've already moved to three-year spending cycles instead of having annual spending reviews. We're now on a three-year cycle which gives some medium-term security. But also from the fact that we have already put such significant sums in - that, I hope, people will take as an indication of our commitment in this area.

Eason: You touch on various points there which people have been e-mailing us about. Can I start with the matter of - I think you said "access for all children" - quite what we mean by that in terms of technology.

Craig Lucia has written to us and said: "How does the government propose that technology should be used in the classroom? The school I'm involved with has found that two or three computers in each classroom is not very satisfactory. They are now proposing setting up a computer suite with 20 computers so that the whole class can have a technology lesson."

Keith Harrison - now this is quite a common problem: "Our school was designed in the 1890s, built early 1900, simply hasn't got any space for a computer lab, how will the minister ensure that older schools, such as ours, can deliver the ICT curriculum effectively?" He'd like a pledge for a computer suite in every school.

And Vincent Jones says: "If it's truly to be integrated into the curriculum how are you going to resolve that in primary schools, where many classrooms have one computer between 30 children?" I know you'll say there will be more than that but even so, you're not talking about a computer for every child.

Have you done any work on whether it's better to have the technology concentrated in a suite or scattered throughout the school?

Wills: Well I think very important questions. I mean we are looking, in some detail, at all of them - the physical architecture of the school, your correspondent is absolutely right a lot of schools are really very old, weren't built for this kind of technology, nor for the kind of learning which actually delivers the best results using this technology.

Now I think you started by asking how do we see it, we see it essentially integrated into the curriculum - this is not about a separate bolt-on subject. Of course ICT is a separate standalone subject - and rightly so - but we want to see this - what is a uniquely potent tool - used across the curriculum and in the best practice that I've seen it does that, it's absolutely integrated into the curriculum in the way that it's taught.

Now that does place particular challenges at school and I'm hesitant to be too prescriptive about what will be appropriate for different schools. different teachers have different methods, they want to use it differently, different schools have different architectures - more modern schools obviously find it easier than older schools - but very few schools are actually built, you know, been built since this technology really took root.

So each school is going to have to find its own root fall, they're going to use different technologies - some are going to use PCs, some are going to use thin clients, some are going to use laptops, mobile technologies are going to be important in the future - there's going to be a mix and match, some schools will have a mixture of these technologies.

Eason: Shouldn't you be giving a lead then? I mean given the amount of public money that's being spent wouldn't it have been better to have researched what gives the best educational benefits and then, not impose it, but suggest to schools that that's the route to follow?

Wills: Well we did do a great degree of research and in fact the Stevenson Report, which is the basis for this funding, actually went into some detail into all these issues.

The judgement that we have made is that these technologies are important not just because people are going to be using them in their working lives, whatever they do, but also because they drive up standards in a variety of ways. Now we know that and that's why we're making the investment because we believe these technologies, integrated across the curriculum, are going to drive up standards.

Now we will be rightly criticised if we said to every teacher: "You've got to teach in precisely this way and at a 11 o'clock on a Tuesday morning you'll be teaching this subject in this way."

Eason: Sounds like the Literacy Hour...

Wills: No, no, that's a misunderstanding about the Literacy Hour. We have to have certain benchmarks and we have to have a certain - I like to think of a rich ecology of provision but within that rich ecology you've got to have certain firmly standing trees and they are the sort of main planks of it.

But around that there has to be flexibility, you have to allow teachers to teach in the way that they're comfortable with and we have to enable them to use the technology in the ways that they're comfortable with.

What I am clear about is that the funding will continue and if, you know, there's one computer per 30 pupils then something will be coming to that school very quickly, or something's going wrong, because that's way, way below the national average and it's way below what we would expect to see in schools.

And may I say to that particular school, that particular person who wrote in, if they don't see any immediate prospect of that changing they're very welcome to get in touch with me at the department and I'll take it up for them.

Eason: You're responsible for schools primarily.

Wills: And lifelong learning as well, I mean it goes across the board.

Eason: The focus has been on schools and it's always schools that are talked about in terms of new technology. We've had a couple of e-mails that broaden that though.

Sheila Grant writes: "When are we, the further education sector, going to be seriously included in debates about education?" - I'm not sure that she means it as broadly as that - "The shortage of technical staff applies there also and holds many students back from making full use of information technology."

And Jonathan Stott has written to us, he doesn't say where from but it's a University of Kent e-mail address: "When will there be extra funding to help universities provide up-to-date computer equipment? The technology being used at mine is very antiquated and often unsuitable." And so on.

Are those issues being addressed for the FE sector and universities?

Wills: Well they are and there's significant extra funding going into the FE and HE sectors and obviously one of the ways in which the universities and colleges can spend that money is precisely as your correspondent suggests.

I think the FE sector is fundamental in driving this agenda forward, particularly in an area of particular concern to me which is what the American's call "the digital divide" - making sure that everybody has access to these technologies.

FE colleges are fundamental in this. we see them as being very important. they play a very important role for example in the role out of the University for Industry which is a flagship programme of us using these technologies to offer learning and skilling opportunities to everybody. They are fully engaged in the debate and we see them as very valuable partners in this agenda.

Eason: Now you didn't include FE lecturers and indeed sixth form college teachers in the Computers for Teachers initiative - that's the scheme whereby you were paying up to half the cost of a new PC if teachers bought them themselves. Why not? - it's upset a lot of people.

Wills: Well it's interesting isn't it that if you give money away people will never say thank you, they always complain and it's slightly baffling to me why.

Eason: These were the people you didn't give the money to.

Wills: Inevitably we can't do everything for everybody. Now this scheme had a very - the Computers for Teachers scheme - had a very specific purpose. it was to support those teachers whose job it is to implement the national curriculum - in other words in the maintained sector - that's why independent schools weren't included.

What we wanted to do was to provide some support for teachers - for those not wholly comfortable with these new technologies - and it was specifically linked to the New Opportunities Fund teacher training in the use of ICT.

So it was a very carefully created scheme with us giving money but in the expectation that teachers would give something back, in other words sign up for the teaching, which they needed - for the training - which they needed to do to deliver the goals that we've set in terms of the national curriculum. Now that's why it was set up in that way. It's been an enormously successful scheme, I have to say, it's now closed, we had such a massive take up ...

Eason: Surprise, surprise.

Wills: Well no we didn't expect it to be, particularly when people had not actually in any of the roadshows stood up and actually said thank you. So obviously they may not have said it but they obviously felt it.

But they have taken it up and what we're now doing is looking at the impact of the scheme and thinking about how we can perhaps extend it, that depends partly on what we get from the Chancellor, but looking also at how we can extend it, not only beyond the teachers who are eligible this time but perhaps to other sectors as well.

I make no promises I have to say because obviously it depends on the sorts of funds that we've got available. But obviously we do want to support teachers, wherever they are, the FE sector included, and if this is an appropriate way we'll certainly look very carefully at it.

Eason: Sally Cox is an ICT assistant in a school, she would like teacher assistants to be included - I mention that to you.

Wills: Her request is noted.

Eason: A couple here from pupils or about pupils. One is from, he just calls himself Rupert, he says he's 14, lives in Dorset, he's dyslexic, bright, finds handwriting difficult, so he's frustrated when he's told there isn't enough money for him to have a laptop to do his work, he would plainly like one.

And somebody else - it's actually from Australia, Elizabeth Elwell - but the point applies almost anywhere: "I've just seen a disadvantaged and disabled child surge ahead in leaps and bounds since I gave him an old computer", which she rebuilt. "What's your view on that? Shouldn't we just - not just provide schools with computers but the less well off students to give them a better chance."

That's a thought isn't it? In Italy they're running a scheme, I think, for interest-free loans that parents can get to buy their children computers.

Wills: Well we actually have a number of schemes. Just let me endorse both those particular correspondents.

We know that learning through ICT can make a huge difference for children with special needs - dyslexia and so on - and of course that's one of the driving forces behind us putting the computers in the schools.

But we also have schemes to help low income families - we have a scheme called Computers Within Reach which would help 100,000 low income families buy their own computers and we've got other things in the pipeline as well which I hope will also drive this agenda forward.

The learning centres - the 700 learning centres that we're setting up - 250m going into that, targeted at the 2,000 most deprived wards of the country - will give people in those areas access to these technologies when they otherwise might not have done.

Absolutely crucial point and we're going to make sure that everybody has access to these technologies.

Eason: Technical support - a big issue again in the roadshows I know.

Philip Hall has written, he's an ICT technician at a secondary school: "I enjoy my job providing the school with technical support that I know many schools would like. But the issue of competitive salaries is becoming a very real one. my school has a rapidly growing modern system requiring an increasing level of expertise to manage it, does the government recognise this issue? Are there any funding plans designed to address it?"

Steve Soames says his concern is that primary schools are finding just routine maintenance too onerous. "Primary ICT co-ordinators tend to find themselves in one of two positions: either they're familiar and confident with the technologies, in which case they become swamped with demands from other staff, or they feel utterly overloaded with demands and pressure of the technologies for which they are inadequately trained."

Affording technical support for increasingly complex networks is a big issue isn't it, especially for primary schools?

Wills: Well it's part of the whole picture and that's why these funding streams have got to continue, that's why we recognise they've got to continue.

There is a particular issue which the first correspondent you mentioned raised which is to do with competitive salaries. The fact is that we have a huge skills gap in this country, as indeed all leading industrial countries have. we do not have enough people with ICT skills for the requirements that we have as an economy and a society and inevitably the private sector is going to be able to afford to pay more than a school, often.

So we've got to be imaginative how we find ways through this. Lots of schools are finding different solutions, some of them are clubbing together, we recognise it's often a problem for smaller schools, for primary schools, secondary schools have a bigger resource base it's easier for them. But often some kind of joining up, secondary schools providing technical support for their feeder primaries can be very helpful.

Different technological solutions - a server and thin client model can be quite helpful in that way. we're not prescribing any particular model but there are different solutions which can work.

We recognise there's an issue and we recognise it and we will recognise in the funding streams that we provide. I can't promise a magic solution to this overnight, it doesn't exist I'm afraid, it's part of a much bigger problem about bridging the skills gap which we're determined to do and we will do.

I mean we have a number of initiatives and programmes that we'll be implementing in response to the Stephens Report, very good report from Arlene Stephens, highlighting the extent of the skills gap in ICT and suggesting various ways we can bridge it and that's what we're going to do.

Eason: Leila Brown has a thought which I'll leave you with on that point: "Have people forgotten that some of the parents are computer literate? if schools asked I'm sure that they'd discover some of the mothers would be willing to help out."

Wills: Good point.

Eason: Another thought here from David Griffin: "Do you think it would help if IT professionals could take half a day a week getting a kick out of teaching kids about computers? They are at the cutting edge and know more than teachers will."

Perhaps companies could have their arms twisted to help out?

Wills: It's excellent and I mean in fact the DfEE - David Blunkett - was very keen that this department should reach out into the community and in one corner I've seen some DfEE officials go out into local schools to do just that with great success - great rewards incidentally for the officials who spoke to me glowingly of what they've got back from helping in this way and I'm sure all employees - many of them are highly sophisticated users of ICT - actually the reward for them is tremendous when you see the difference that you can make in the life of a child by just helping out in this way.

So we would be very positive in encouraging people to do this and in fact we are practising what we preach as a department. David Blunkett was very keen that we should do so and the officials have really risen magnificently to that challenge.

Eason: You mentioned just now not prescribing any particular models. some people would like you to.

"It is a well known fact," says Robert Zarywacz, "that Apple Macintosh computers are far easier to use and cost far less to support." Glenn Evans: "Why not use Macs where possible to reduce support costs?"

And a whole string of e-mails on a similar theme likening this to the government's stated support of Rover as a viable car maker.

Andrew Harmsworth, for instance: "There are many schools in this country using British computers that are immune to such stupid things as the Love Bug virus. Acorn no longer make them but (a whole string of other companies) do." Richard Skegg: "Why is the government promoting schools to buy computers that need such expensive and costly maintenance and will need replacing in a few years?"

And Peter Margetts: "Why are Risc operating system (Acorn) computers being scrapped wholesale? Many schools have them." Lots of e-mails on a similar theme.

It's true, isn't it, that we tend to think or schools tend to think about PCs - IBM-type PCs - running Microsoft operating systems these days. it's not the only way to go.

Wills: No, well it's not the only way to go at all but we would be very hesitant about prescribing it. These are quite complex arguments and there are individual choices to be made.

I think it would be wrong for government to take a too prescriptive view on this. it leads to ossification, whatever system you choose, because obviously there's a massive investment in, it would stifle innovation, it would stifle choice and that's got to be the wrong way to go.

Just on Apple Macs: Apple Macs were an option under the Computers for Teachers scheme, they are actually available under the National Grid for Learning managed services - there's no antipathy towards any system.

I mean we do think honestly that schools must make their own decisions and these are complex - various things have got to be weighed up and they're not easy decisions. I mean I had this when I ran a business in deciding what systems to buy and there are conflicting considerations here and in the end it's for schools to make up their minds. But as a government we are not trying to skew the debate in one way or the other.

Eason: We've been talking, almost entirely, about hardware at the moment. There's an old saying in the internet world - as much as anything's old in the internet world - "content is king".

Thomas Joseph has written to us from the United States: "Here in the US, school systems seem to place hardware over software. It's content, after all, that's the education kernel. Content creation by the government school system so far is taking a retarded role here, I hope not there." He means in the UK.

Somebody else, the name is simply Fordington: "If software was bought on a nationwide scheme the buying power factor would reduce the cost to a sensible level."

And Adrian Baker says: "Do you have a policy, minister, on which software products are used in schools?" He sort of flags up his own warning here that "any choice will implicitly give that vendor an unfair mind share amongst parents and teachers."

But it is very scattered at the moment isn't it? There's a focus on hardware, a perceived - at any rate - lack of content and certainly it doesn't seem that teachers are being encouraged to generate their own content that other people can use.

Wills: Well I think there are a number of issues there. First of all I have a great deal of sympathy with that old software adage about content being king. In the end that is what matters.

But we've got - we started from a very low base - we've got to put the hardware in and it's got to continue going in, we've got to make sure the right connectivity is there, the right kind of broadband access at the right kind of cost and effectiveness.

But in the end it's the content that will drive it forward in the medium to long term. And that's why we're not ignoring it. we've actually ring fenced some of the Standards Fund allocation - 15% of it is ring-fenced actually for content. And we've had a number of initiatives to drive up the standard of software provision.

There's some very good software in this country, created in this country, and I don't want that to be misunderstood but there's an awful lot of it which is not fully exploiting the potential - the full creative interactive potential of these technologies.

There are wonderful opportunities here and they've not been properly seized at the moment by the content providers. Now we are doing what we can to - I announced earlier this year we're going to put in several million pounds into funding three key stage pilots, whole course pilot programmes, which are designed to be innovative content, Key Stage 3 in maths, in a non-traditional language like Chinese or the Japanese and classics, to try and sort of set standards in this area so people can aspire to.

We're putting our money, again, where our mouth is and want to encourage content and I would agree with everything that your correspondents have said.

Eason: A final thought here about perhaps where all this is going.

This is from James Findlay, who calls himself a social educator, he's working in Denmark: "Wouldn't it be better to radically change the schooling system where, for example, in the future it would the student who chooses the teacher on the internet, freeing up the resources used in school where the student learns at home, has direct linkage via web cameras, time online with a teacher registered at a central office."

He says he's trying to get such a project going in Denmark. Can you see a time when we'll move to that and perhaps don't have schools at all - tele-work, tele-learn?

Wills: I think that is going to be a very important part of the future but it is only ever going to be part of it.

I mean at the heart of learning is always going to be the teacher because teachers can do things that machines can't and even the interactive web cam and all the rest of it, there's something quite different about a teacher who is beside you, that human sympathy and empathy and we relate to people actually instinctively when we're in their presence and for all the development - and I was a television producer before I became an MP so I speak with some passion and previous professional commitment to this - but nevertheless despite all the advances of these technologies in the end the direct human interaction that you have with someone - those signals that you pick up from someone that will enable you to empathise and relate to them - actually you're going to need that physical proximity at the heart of the learning experience.

And children need to learn socially. they cannot do all their learning on their own.

Now that's not to say that we're not going to move to a world where your correspondent's vision is going to be a very important part of it.

I did these roadshows up and down the country and in the end it became clear to me - we called it the Classroom of the Future - and what became clear to me is that the classroom of the future, the walls are going to become more and more porous - but there's still going to be a classroom, there's still going to be a teacher in it and there's still going to be children learning together.

That's not going to be the only way they learn. they're going to learn at home in the way that your correspondent sketched in as well and that's what makes this world so exciting. Actually those possibilities and opportunities of opening up, the flexibility, the choice, the complexity of techniques that are available actually, I think, open a vastly exciting new world of learning for all of us.

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06 May 00 | Education
Teachers' computer concerns

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