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ICT usage in schools – a history

Technology has impacted all areas of our lives over the past couple of decades, from the way we communicate to the ways we work and learn. The education sector, in particular, has been revolutionised by technology, with governments across the globe viewing it as a key tool in shaping successful and adaptable workforces of the future.

In the UK, ICT has played a pivotal role in improving school standards, and its implementation is discussed in a new research report from British Educational Suppliers Association (BESA), entitled 'ICT use in schools: 1991-2014.' BESA has been monitoring technology in some 26,000 UK state schools since the 1980s and in its latest paper, it discusses how far technology has come during the past three decades.

The report

According to the report, the first real move in introducing ICT into schools was the creation of the Microelectronics Education Programme (MEP). Devised by the Labour government and set up under Thatcher's conservative government, the programme received £8 million in funding between 1981 and 1984 to investigate how computers could be used in schools. Software was created for the computers to demonstrate their potential, and suddenly attitudes towards technology began to change for the better.

At the time of BESA's first report in 1994, computers were only just being introduced into schools. However, a mere four years later in 1998, there were 820,000 computers in UK state schools, and some of those schools had Internet connection. The adoption of technology was starting to gain traction, though the government still had no school ICT policy.

Then, in 1997, Tony Blair commissioned the 'Information and Communications Technology in UK Schools' report, which looked into the ways in which computers could be introduced into schools, and how teachers could be trained to use them. The report likened computers to electricity - something that is deemed strange at first, but that will go on to impact all areas of society.

During the same year, BESA's report revealed a rapid uptake of technology across UK schools, with expenditure in the area increasing to almost 20% of all school resource spending. Schools' overall budgets remained the same, with the boost in technology spend made possible through PTA fundraising, voucher schemes, government-funded projects and commercial software offered to schools at discounted rates.

Tony Blair being voted into power in 1997 was a 'golden period' for UK schools, says Andrew Thraves, chair of BESA. "Money was going into schools for whiteboards, laptops and training [...] Labour wanted to be seen as new and fresh and ICT went along with the young government feel," the report cites.

Technology was funded and supported by the government, and the majority of teachers were confident that the use of computers would positively impact their teaching. In 1998, the British Educational Communications and Technology Agency (Becta) was set up. The body was part responsible for introducing a new primary curriculum in 2009, in which ICT was made a core skill.

Labour launched the New Opportunities Fund in 1999, which provided £230 million to help educate teachers in ICT. However, this programme was deemed to be ineffective; the training was often too advanced and there was a significant lack of ongoing support.

At the turn of the millennium, the number of computers in schools had increased to 851,000 and of the total, almost a third were laptops, which signified a growing interest in portable devices. A total 90% of schools also had internet connection, yet BESA's 2000 report still revealed a lack of confidence surrounding technology use: one third of schools thought that 70% of teachers were neither confident nor competent in using ICT.

This notable lack of confidence meant that expensive ICT equipment was not being utilised to its full potential. Teachers were also complaining that equipment was taking too long to set-up, which impacted their teaching time.

By the time Blair was re-elected in 2005, there were almost 2 million computers in UK schools. Nearly all secondary schools (99.9%) had internet connection, while 80% of primary schools and 99% of secondary schools used interactive whiteboards for teaching.

However, with the newly 'connected' schools, a new problem emerged: bandwidth. In 2007, bandwidth was operating at half its optimum level. This issue was partly addressed by new Prime Minister Gordon Brown, who set up the Harnessing Technology Grant to help schools and other authorities enhance their services, which included broadband infrastructure.

In spite of the recession, ICT budgets reached their highest by 2010, at £420 million across the country. Yet, suppliers were put under increasing pressure to keep prices affordable if they wanted to stay on the approved suppliers list.

Whereas before, suppliers would include training as part of the package, they had to leave that in the hands of authorities and schools in order to cut costs. Whiteboards, as an example, were sold cheaply to schools but teachers weren't trained to use them. BESA's 2007 report revealed that only a respective 31% and 16% of primary and secondary schools said most teachers felt confident using the whiteboards.

David Cameron coming into power, and the appointment of Michael Gove as Education Secretary, marked a huge change for ICT in schools. Cameron's government scrapped Becta to save £80 million of public spending, while Gove put a halt to Labour's primary curriculum which included ICT as a core skill.

Despite Gove's promise to invest in training teachers, there was a clear lack of support. In BESA's 2011 report, 54% of secondary and 45% of primary schools thought more than half of their teachers still needed training to use digital content; while 71% of primary and 68% of secondary schools thought more than half their staff needed training in learning platforms.

ICT was eventually replaced by computer science, which further added to the need for training teachers: many felt confident teaching ICT, but not computer science topics such as programming. Wireless was, and still is, a continuing issue in many schools, hindering pupils from taking full advantage of the technology available to them. Last year's report revealed that two thirds of primary schools and more than half of secondary schools believe they are under-resourced by Wi-Fi connectivity.

Caroline Wright, BESA Director, commented: 'British teachers are world leaders in the use of educational technology in the classroom so it is of great concern that pupils are being denied access to innovative and effective digital learning because of poor internet connectivity in more than half of the UK's schools."

What BESA's reports highlight is the need for continual support and development for teachers going forward, so they are able to utilise technology to help them better educate pupils. As the report concludes:

"The education system has moved to a new, pragmatic understanding of ways in which technology serves education and not the other way round. There will be more advances of which we, here in 2015, can only dream. But the message from our reports is that teachers and students will be ready and willing to embrace them."

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