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Wednesday, 9 January, 2002, 06:08 GMT
Classrooms of the future
A vision of a UK school of the future making extensive use of computer technology and classroom assistants has been unveiled by the Education Secretary, Estelle Morris.
Opening the BETT 2002 educational technology conference in London, the education secretary presented a promotional video showing a computer-generated model of the school of tomorrow.
As a step along the road, Ms Morris announced a £100m scheme to provide teachers in England with laptop computers.
This will provide laptops for about 100,000 teachers over the next two years - although that will still leave almost twice as many without.
Use of assistants
Information technology would revolutionise schools, she promised, acting as the "DNA or the combustion engine" of education.
It would change everything from the way pupils were taught to school timetables and staffing arrangements, she said.
Instead of pupils learning in conventional year groups, she suggested that children could learn at their own pace and in settings which need not be in traditional classrooms.
Gifted older pupils might be studying at undergraduate level, she said, and there could be scope for learning from home.
And schools would be expected to be connected to their local communities, so that pupils could access online libraries out of school hours.
"For the first time, it allows teachers to teach pupils as individuals ... and the most able and the most disaffected can be taught in the same classroom."
"We also need to look at how schools of the future are designed, to make sure they are able to manage current and future changes in ICT."
And the Department for Education would soon be producing a guide which would help schools adapt buildings for new technology, she said.
But she warned that the investment in educational technology - worth £1.8bn over six years - was an opportunity that would not be repeated and that schools had to show that the money was well spent.
Suggesting what this money might achieve, the video showed vast, open-plan spaces containing hi-tech study areas equipped with palmtops, laptops, plasma screens and electronic whiteboards.
The stress on the use of assistants reiterates the education secretary's recent speeches promoting their greater use in schools.
The video's commentary says "a fusion of teaching, learning and technology" is fast becoming a reality.
The school becomes a place where technology allows "children of all abilities to learn at their own pace alongside one another, studying individually or in groups" - where "teachers can offer leadership to pupils with the support of a classroom assistant".
"All of this is backed by the availability of technical support, so that there is no disruption to the free flow of learning and development," it says.
The lack of affordable technical support has been one of the big complaints from schools benefiting from £1.8bn worth of equipment under the National Grid for Learning initiative.
Teachers' unions have welcomed the promise of laptops, but say it will take much more than that to transform most schools in line with the vision.
The Association of Teachers and Lecturers said: "If there is a cautionary note to be sounded it is that ICT [information and communication technology] is a valuable educational adjunct but it is no panacea.
"Deep-seated problems need more than a shiny new laptop."
The Department for Education sees it as crucial to the more effective use of ICT that teachers have regular personal access to computers to build up their knowledge and confidence.
This time, they will not have to make any financial contribution.
Instead, from this summer, education authorities will be able to buy laptops which will then be owned - and maintained - by their schools.
Priority is to be given to head teachers who do not yet have a laptop.
The National Association of Head Teachers said the £100m was about half the figure recommended by the PricewaterhouseCoopers' study on reducing teachers' workloads, but was "a real step in the right direction".
The general secretary, David Hart, said he was happy to talk to the government about its vision of the school of the future, providing this was not just an attempt to avoid dealing with the problems of the present.
Word of caution
"Today's recruitment and retention problems cannot be solved by talking about tomorrow's schools," he said.
The NASUWT teachers' union said research on the relationship between pupil performance and ICT resources was inconclusive.
It was happy to encourage development of ICT, recognising that it had a very useful role in education "but is most unlikely ever to be able to compensate for the active presence and motivating force of a teacher."
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