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Last Updated: Wednesday, 12 January 2005, 18:33 GMT
Is the future bright?
By Sean Coughlan
BBC News education reporter

Bett Show
More than 550 exhibitors are attending the Bett Show
Information technology will be vital to increasing parents' involvement in their children's education, says Education Secretary Ruth Kelly.

Speaking at the British Education and Training Technology (Bett) Show, Ms Kelly said computers could "open up" the education system to parents.

The use of online materials in schools was "crucial to our drive to raise standards", she said.

Ms Kelly also welcomed 34 overseas education ministers attending the UK's major schools technology trade fair.

Promoting the interests of parents in education is a stated priority for the new education secretary.

'Part of the furniture'

In her speech at the Bett Show, at London's Olympia, she returned to the theme, saying that information and communications technology (ICT) created the opportunity for parents to find out more about their children's education.

"ICT can open up our education system and make it much more accessible to parents," she said.

Technology was now "part of the furniture and as natural to see in the classroom as the desks and chairs", she said.

Man with whiteboards
Whiteboards are becoming more common in classrooms

In 1998, there was still not even a computer for every classroom, she told her audience - now almost every secondary school has broadband.

Ms Kelly also announced a range of free training materials for teachers and that Teachers' TV, a government-funded channel for teachers, will begin broadcasting next month.

The newly appointed education secretary stuck to a script that still gave away few clues about her future intentions for schools.

There was plenty of computer-generated education-speak about "transforming learning", but there was nothing much being given away about what the new broom was planning to sweep away.


But visitors to the show were bombarded by ideas from exhibitors about how schools should be changing - usually involving parting with large amounts of cash for a computer system.

This annual event has more than 550 exhibitors, including most of the major technology corporations and a plethora of specialist education companies.
Baldev Singh
Teacher of the year Baldev Singh says schools are adapting
And wasn't that curriculum guru Sir Mike Tomlinson wandering through, just past Johnny Ball doing something scientific with a whiteboard on the BT stand?

There were delegations from Australia and Canada, as overseas technology companies try to break into the UK school technology market.

And all around, there were hyped-up, motivational presenters giving it the David Brent treatment.

There were disciples gathered around the Apple display, looking longingly at the new Mac mini. Teachers have suggested this might have an unexpectedly practical application in the classroom - as it means that keyboards and stand-alone monitors can be re-used after a computer has become too slow to be useful.

Interactive whiteboards were among the most widely promoted products - as they rapidly become a standard feature in the classroom.

But as schools get these installed, the next challenge will be to find materials to help use them effectively.

Wow factor

Teacher of the Year, Baldev Singh, who was on his school's stand at the show, said that teachers are much more discerning in how they approach the vast amount of software and hardware on offer.

"When companies show them a product, they're not just going to say 'wow, amazing', in the way they might have five years ago. They're much more selective," said Mr Singh, of John Cabot City Technology School in Bristol.
Tony Richardson
Every child in the country wouldn't only be entitled to a school place, but they would also be entitled to a rich array of online resources
Tony Richardson

The trend that technology companies will need to respond to, he says, is the emergence of "virtual learning environments", where pupils have access to an online library of materials and online support.

When older pupils at John Cabot use online resources, the peak hours are between 9 and 11.30pm - and Mr Singh says that when people talk about "personalised learning", this type of flexibility over time might be what it means in practice.

The theme of parents being more involved - and children having a more individualised approach to learning - was also picked up by Tony Richardson, director of online learning at the training college for head teachers, the National College for School Leadership.

Taking the temperature of this year's show, he said the big issue was going to be the setting up of virtual learning environments - which would mean giving children at home online access to learning materials and the help of teachers.

This would raise far-reaching questions for schools, giving pupils much more scope for learning at their own pace - and allowing parents to see more about the inner-workings of their children's education.

"Every child in the country wouldn't only be entitled to a school place, but they would also be entitled to a rich array of online resources," he said.

And he says that this might be supported by some kind of educational equivalent of NHS Direct, where pupils and parents could get direct advice through the phone or online.

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