Schools may have 'new freedoms' but new research indicates that they can't afford them
BESA reportJust at the moment when the BBC's School Report Survey demonstrates the importance of technology in young people's lives, along comes fresh research to show the major threat to learning with ICT posed by Coalition Government policies.

A clear majority of secondary schools, 65 per cent, and more than half of primaries, 56 per cent, said they are "unlikely or definitely unable to maintain ICT investments" in 2011-12, according to the  survey by the British Educational Suppliers Association (BESA). (The percentages are up from 48 and 42 respectively in June 2010.)

According to ICT leaders in schools in England who responded to the BESA survey "Impact of New Technologies in English Maintained Schools" (due for publication in April), only 38 per cent of primary and 28 per cent of secondary schools will “definitely or probably be able to maintain their planned ICT investments in 2011/12”.

While technologies that clearly provide schools with savings and good value for money with be top of schools’ shopping lists, products and services associated with curriculum innovation could face a struggle for recognition. It’s an aspect not lost on BESA director Ray Barker.

Ray BarkerBESA's Ray Barker“The challenge offered by the results of this survey is all about the continuation of innovation in ICT, both in product development and in classroom practice,” he says.

“The perception of educators that they have no money for ICT any more is obviously leading to many thinking that they cannot try innovative new products and approaches. The apparent lack of interest in smartphones is an example – which is a shame for both the industry who have always responded by creating new, innovative products, and for pupils who have always responded well to these. The growth in the use of free digital content also reflects this.”

Laptops continue to be seen as the most useful ICT devices for learners (49 percent for primary and 34 for secondary) followed by netbooks (29 primary, 24 secondary) and tablets (20 primary, 25 secondary). Ten per cent of secondaries were interested in smartphones but only 2 per cent of primaries. However those perceptions were not backed up by investment as the percentages of those that used those devices heavily were far lower (primary currently 16 per cent rising to 23 projected for 2012, and 12 per cent for secondary with a projection of 20 for 2012).

Secondaries are more open to the use of pupils' smartphones for learning (17 per cent felt them "very useful"), but primaries are still against (only 7 per cent felt they were "very useful"). But very few in either category thought they would be taken up in any significant way by 2012.

Online curriculum content for home use remains a minority facility (22 per cent of secondary and 7 of primary reporting "extensive use), with use of eportpolios, webspace or VLEs for home showed similar take-up.

A similar gap between recognition of worth and level of investment also exists in the technology for teachers section. Primary schools have certainly woken up to the value of visualers, the 'document cameras' that allow teachers to share on their big screens images of anything they put in front of these devices (they can also do basic video-conferencing).Some 55 per cent of them regarded them as "most useful" technologies followed by large-panel touch-screens and tablets (both 19 per cent).

Secondary teachers are taken with the idea of audience response systems and tablets as "most useful" (28 per cent for both) followed by large-panel touch-screens (27 per cent). However the percentages for take-up were far, far lower, except for visualisers in primary (15 per cent currently use them).

Unsurprising for these troubled times, the "most useful" technologies for primaries were free content (86 per cent), VLE-delivered content (44 per cent) and assessment and testing software (40 per cent). The response for secondary was VLE-delivered content (66 per cent) followed by free content (64 per cent) and assessment and testing software (36 per cent). Again, actual take-up was far lower except for free content – 45 per cent of primaries and 24 per cent of secondaries claim they make extensive use of it.

Curiously, with such high interest in free services, and some excellent practice being shown by a minority of teachers, very little interest was shown in social networking technologies like blogging, Twitter or Facebook. The dominant means of digital communication appear to be email and texting while many schools are using their web presences to communicate with parents.

The overall picture is alarming

It’s not surprising that schools are getting anxious about funding for ICT. One of the first things education minister Michael Gove MP did following the election was to raid Harnessing Technology funds for £50 million to finance his free schools venture. A further £50m of HT money was subsequently creamed off.

A report in Education Investor this week ("Schools face huge capital funding cuts, warns MP") quotes Chuka Umunna MP saying that research by the House of Commons library “showed that 'devolved formula capital' grant funding is due to fall by £26,000 per primary school and £86,000 per secondary school” in England. Add to that the individual reports coming in from schools, for example one east London borough has a primary school where the devolved capital funding fell from £40,000 to £8,000, and the overall picture is alarming.

Schools will now have to base their spending decisions on their immediate priorities and their own “pot” of money rather than look to available funding streams. Ray Barker explains: “Schools do still have money for all kinds of resources but this is now in a centralised ‘pot of money’. The era of ring-fenced grants for ICT is over. Schools now have to make their own purchasing decisions based on their school development plan.

“What resources do they need to achieve their outcomes? If one of their challenges is to improve standards in boys’ reading, for example, what approach will they choose? They could buy a traditional reading scheme or they could invest in iPads to enthuse young people to read e-books. That is now their choice. It is really about a school’s own perception of value for money.

“Interestingly enough, the report shows an interest in new technologies such as visualisers, which are teacher-friendly and have an immediate use in the classroom. Primary schools are even saying that they would like to have large plasma touch-screens in the future.

'Perceptions can create a gap between what schools teach and how pupils learn'

“The majority of schools apparently make no use of social networking sites, yet young people use these all the time – another reflection on how perceptions of ICT can create a gap between what schools teach and how the pupils actually learn now.

“The report shows that it is likely that there will be significant differences between those emerging technologies that enhance and replace technology (eg tablets replacing netbooks) and those technologies that are a new way to teach and learn (e.g. learning platforms), but that do not necessarily replace any existing technology (eg learning platforms). In addition, new technologies that replace solutions with a cost-effective alternative (eg cloud-computing) are likely to do well, while technologies that enhance, but do so at a higher cost (eg large LCD displays replacing IWBs) are more likely to struggle to compete.

"Impact of New Technologies in English Maintained Schools", commissioned from C3 Education and NERP, and written by research consultant Richard Connor, is available from BESA.