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Tuesday, 4 May, 1999, 14:37 GMT 15:37 UK
That electronic whiteboard thing
blair whitebaord
Tony Blair autographs his silhouette on the electronic whiteboard
In a photo-opportunity most manufacturers could only dream of, the latest hi-tech teaching aid was launched last month by the prime minister, who brought with him the education secretary and the home secretary.

Known as the whiteboard, it projects a large computer screen up on the wall which can be controlled at the touch of a pen on the screen. For the lucky school, Our Lady and St John, it has become the gateway to the 21st Century.

This technology has been installed as part of Blackburn's Education Action Zone - one of the first wave announced last year. They are intended to be the government's most radical experiments with the private sector in state schools, the Third Way already taking shape in the classroom.

Private partnerships
Each has 1m a year, three-quarters from the Treasury, one-quarter from business in cash or kind. The immediate beneficiary in Blackburn is the school's head of IT, Stephen Fleming.

"Imagine a giant computer screen that all the class can view at the same time," he said.

"It enables you to show exactly what's happening on a normal computer screen, but not just show it you can actually click on the screen, you are making the screen do the work for you. So the pupils can see the procedures that you're suing, and can then imitate them when they get back to their own computers."

Product endorsement

For the prime minister's visit, the school was also kitted out for video-conferencing, courtesy of British Aerospace - another moment of product endorsement by the political celebrities - and other equipment: 18,000-worth in all.

The headteacher, Michael Humphries, told the manufacturers it would not go down too well if people were told that the equipment was being taken away on the Monday morning.

"Part of the deal that we did, given that everybody was going to get huge publicity out of it, was that they left it with us in return for the huge amount of work that we had to do to facilitate that visit," he said.

"I think they might have found it a little painful but I felt they got a very good deal out of it - but then again so did we and that's what the partnership should be about."

Now the 20 other schools in Blackburn's Education Action Zone are to get whiteboards too - but without the prime minister on offer, the manufacturer will not be giving them free.

The deal unravels

The Action Zone fund will buy the boards at 8,000 a time - a welcome bulk order for the local company, Promethean, which includes a small discount and the promise of training and technical support for the schools.

Last summer, the deal seemed to be done. We have learned, though, that it is now having to be undone. At this rather late stage, it seems, the council has insisted that so large a contract must be put out to tender, not simply blessed by the prime minister.

In this partnership, the Education Chairman, Bill Taylor, has to ensure that private companies follow public sector rules - and more than one firm had tendered for the whiteboard project.

"What we had to make sure in terms of local government probity was that anyone who wanted to compete had the chance to compete and that's why we're going back through the process, to make sure that we're completely clear on that one," he said.

He is confident of getting "the best product" into schools in the end.

"We're only people and people make mistakes and we'll learn from those."

>> next: Not on my shopping list

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