HC Deb 09 November 1998 vol 319 cc119-26

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr. Mike Hall.]

10.1 pm

Mr. David Taylor (North-West Leicestershire)

For me, 1 May 1997 was an important day. It marked the completion of three decades in the world of computing. In that last proper job before becoming a Member of Parliament, I worked in software development and computer management in local government, so I have a professional interest in the subject of this debate. As important as that interest is the fact that the seat I represent has a substantial number of village primary schools, all but one of which I have visited in recent months as part of that fact-finding activity that is pursued by virtually all newly elected Members.

I am writing a report to be presented to the Secretary of State for Education and Employment, which summarises the reaction of the 51 schools in my constituency to the impact of Labour's education policies and priorities in the first 18 months of our Government. Much of the comment was positive, but there are a number of real difficulties, such as teacher morale, resources and the rate of expected change faced by schools—issues that I hope to raise in future debates. However, the subject of this debate cropped up so frequently in my discussions with heads, teachers, governors, parents and students, that it needed an immediate airing, especially in the light of last Friday's announcement by the Prime Minister of the information technology package for schools, worth approximately £1 billion.

That announcement will be most welcome in all schools—urban and rural, secondary and primary—because all schools are experiencing financial, timetabling and resource pressures in delivering the IT curriculum. I hope that this short debate will show why small rural primary schools need special attention and support.

The village school that I attended with my sisters, following two generations of our family and followed by my four daughters, is a few yards from my front gate. For many years, I was active as a governor of the school, and saw at first hand how small schools were often left to implement the grand designs of the previous Government with too few resources, no preparation time and little training, without appreciation but with lots of exhortation, and not infrequent criticism and condemnation.

The teaching profession in 1992 and 1997 asked general election candidates for a period of stability. They were not saying, "Stop the world, we want to get off," but urging Government to introduce only properly resourced, adequately piloted change, when schools had been consulted and staff trained. Schools were often ranked but never thanked; frequently named and shamed, but rarely sustained and supported. The targets set were constantly moved. Like many pioneers, they were hit by the arrows. I hope—no, I am confident—that things can only get better.

We must establish a real partnership of equals, among Government, local education authorities and schools in driving forward our top political priority. The massive extra sums made available for schools over the life of this Government must be used effectively, as there are risks in investing in information technology, as I hope to show.

IT is rapidly transforming the way we work, use our leisure, and, crucially, how we learn. In our small village schools, often with fewer than half a dozen teachers, there can be difficulties in implementing IT coherently and satisfactorily. It is no use having a gift-wrapped, Pentium multi-media machine delivered, when the responsible member of staff is already delivering the new literacy strategy, planning the numeracy initiative, getting ready for key stage 2 standard assessment tests, marking a set of science projects, and fund raising for musical instruments. In smaller schools in particular, staff must wear several hats. Cramming yet another on to an overstretched head without proper preparation courts disaster.

Training must be structured continuing, and must take account of the difficulties in releasing teachers and other staff from smaller schools. A series of half-day courses, on-line tutorials or pre-dawn Open university programmes will not be adequate; it must be done properly. Teachers with little or no IT background need consistent, continuous professional development. Most teachers entered the profession before the personal computer as we know it burst on to the scene in the mid-1980s. The number is proportionately bigger in small schools.

Even now, the IT content of teacher training courses is limited, with little follow-up. It is unsurprising that the IT skills acquired can quickly become outdated. Although there has been some generic training in the schools on-line project, there is still a substantial lack of confidence and competence. For the smaller school, it is not possible within timetabling and staffing constraints to carve out sufficient free time for staff to develop their expertise, for instance, in using the internet as a teaching resource. The urgent crowds out the important. Whatever their attitude to IT, wherever they are on the spectrum, from perplexed anxiety to zealous enthusiasm, teachers are trying to acquire new skills without budget or non-contact time.

Serving teachers are sometimes put under pressure to train their colleagues. While sitting next to the newly qualified teacher can be useful, too often it means doing it on the cheap and exploiting the good will of staff who happen to be IT-literate, confident software users or unafraid of tackling hardware difficulties. These technological paragons are rarer in village staff rooms than Chris Woodhead fans.

My preferred training alternative is external providers. I strongly endorse the view of the National Union of Teachers that such training providers must demonstrate the application of IT and not make it an isolated subject area. Problem-solving approaches to teaching must be given priority. Conventional training, whether live or computer-based, can be highly wasteful. It is often better to deliver the operating detail as it is required. There is an analogy. Most can cook a tasty dish with a recipe book. Repetition commits the skill to memory, and fresh dishes can be brought out quickly.

Special arrangements are needed to provide a cost-effective support service, readily available on site or on line to families of small schools. Until small schools have guaranteed access to that high-quality technical support, it would be ludicrous for them to have to meet nationally imposed IT targets.

Perhaps the best way to provide that service in rural areas is via local education advisory services with a role similar to that of the laboratory technician in secondary and larger schools. Primary schools welcome the £500 per teacher allocated for IT training under the new opportunities lottery fund, but is it not too much of a gamble to allow that crucial investment to be financed by an electronic raffle? The nation's children deserve better.

In my visits to north-west Leicestershire schools, I am often impressed by the leading-edge hardware I see, but the finance tends to depend on the generosity, energy or affluence of parent fund raisers. In some areas, keeping schools' computers up to date and compatible with one another is extremely difficult. With tighter budgets come more constraints and greater risks; thus, purchasing policy tends to be ultra-cautious, and old equipment is not unknown, with all its associated costs and problems. I was not at all surprised by a recent national survey that rated half of all school hardware obsolete.

In smaller schools, lack of available space is not an issue restricted to disk drives: rotas are necessary in cramped classrooms to control access. That is a major disadvantage for those students who have no home access to a PC, let alone the internet. My straw poll showed that such students comprised up to two thirds of all pupils in North-West Leicestershire. Inequality of PC and network access is certainly a rural issue.

It is said that a sizeable minority of smaller schools throughout the country have no budget, training or staff development policy for IT. Does my hon. Friend the Minister agree that that will eventually make it impossible for those schools to deliver our ambitious national curriculum in IT? I hope that he will give an outline of the Government's thinking on the most appropriate application of information technology in primary schools; for, without a coherent strategy, the finest training, fastest hardware and fanciest software in the world will fail—and expensively so.

The Daily Telegraph is not yet required reading by Millbank. Nevertheless, I read a thought—provokingeven depressing—article in that newspaper on 21 October. Leicester university had surveyed a major pilot project in leading-edge IT usage in a large group of Bristol schools. The team's findings included: much of what the children were doing was unchallenging and routine. Many (for example) were quite happy to give the appearance of being engaged in useful activity whilst writing `Manchester United' in different fonts. It is not only university academics who harbour great unease about the way in which IT is applied in our schools. Let me quote the words of a teacher at a local primary school that was—unfairly, I feel—criticised by the Ofsted inspection team for its work in IT: The major issue raised (lack of time in the classroom) cannot be effectively addressed. No matter how expert the staff, how up-to-date the equipment, it is not possible to give the children continual instruction and practice in computer skills within the (crowded) primary curriculum. Another comment by a local teacher was: Children of primary age can only develop processing and retrieval techniques if they practise regularly—but we don't have the equipment at school and they don't have it at home. At the moment the millions of pounds pumped into inadequate, out-dated equipment is delivering very limited opportunities to primary pupils. Finally, the words of a teacher experienced in IT: I just cannot teach a class of 30 children the national curriculum requirements in IT with one computer. We're so frustrated, we're on the point of giving up. Those are not the comments of fin-de-siecle Luddites, but of hard-working, committed teachers in successful village primary schools. They are overwhelmed with initiatives, anxious to come up to expectations, but fearful that they will invest heavily of their time and energy in IT only to find the curriculum changed, the software dated, and the hardware switched on but the children switched off. Please will the Minister respond to their collective cri de coeur with some urgently needed reassurance?

The pressures of primary school life lead to isolated use of computers in classrooms. Pupils' experience of IT may be unrelated to what is being taught at the time in other curricular areas. A lack of space can mean that the chance for one-to-one intervention by staff makes the effective application of IT for cross-curricular learning impossible for many primary schools and most small rural ones.

The prime use of computers in the early years is always to support and reinforce the learning process. If IT is solely an extra set of skills to be learned, many teachers believe that we are missing the point, and I agree. Too many potato chips on the school dinner menu is unhealthy; ill-considered use of silicon chips in the classroom is not good for children, either. Like its TV cousin, the PC monitor can damage fitness for the world outside.

The writer of the article in The Daily Telegraph concluded: if the Government thinks that pouring hundreds of millions of pounds into wiring up schools to the 'information super highway' is going to drive up education standards, it is sadly mistaken. I do not share that pessimistic outlook. Indeed, I am convinced that the single most important use of IT is to transform education, and improve the lot of those who work within it.

The potential of the national grid for learning to benefit all aspects of life in rural primary schools is vast, but we need to do, more—much more—to carry the teaching profession with us, particularly in village schools, as our society grapples with the implications of the information revolution, and our economy demands people who are familiar with its tools of change. This is not just about money; the Government still have a major task on their hands to persuade the world of primary education that appropriate training, continued technical support and adequate curricular space are part of our IT strategy, and that we and they can deliver the goods.

I am certain that the Minister will be able to solve that problem, and I look forward to hearing his solution.

10.15 pm
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Education and Employment (Mr. Charles Clarke)

I begin by congratulating my hon. Friend the Member for North-West Leicestershire (Mr. Taylor) on securing the debate, and on the way in which he argued the case for his constituents.

It will be common ground in the House that the potential of information technology in improving communication between rural and isolated primary schools has been recognised worldwide. That is one reason why Scandinavian countries are investing heavily in IT, and Australia and Canada have been in the forefront of the development of IT in education, including the installation of the necessary infrastructure. The UK leads other G7 countries in the number of computers in schools. There are 18 pupils to a computer in primary schools, nine pupils to a computer in secondary schools, and only four pupils to a computer in special schools. Those raw statistics do not evade my hon. Friend's key point—that we shall be able to transform our performance on IT in schools only if teachers in rural primary schools and others feel that the technology is theirs to control, use and benefit from to the extent that they can stretch and develop their children.

Mr. Roy Beggs (East Antrim)

Does the Minister agree that we cannot depend on teachers volunteering to take training and become competent, and that we should aim to provide training for every teacher in every school?

Mr. Clarke

I shall come to that point in a moment when I deal with teacher training, but my short answer is that, although the hon. Gentleman makes an important point, I only partially agree with him.

We shall make progress only if teachers feel that the technology is for them. That brings me to a point made by my hon. Friend the Member for North-West Leicestershire. In using IT, not only in a separate part of the curriculum but in teaching English, maths and other parts of the curriculum, it is exceptionally important that teachers feel confident and able to use the technology well.

My hon. Friend's point about appropriate technology is entirely correct, and the Manchester United logos that he described are an example of a serious problem. That is why we are focusing our teacher training initiative on ensuring not only that teachers feel confident in using the basic hardware but that they are applying information technology to particular educational needs, at every key stage and in every subject. There is a great danger, which my hon. Friend rightly pointed out, that we shall have hardware lying around the classroom with no one using it, and money being wasted. I believe that we must contest that problem by ensuring that teachers understand, and are aware of, the technology that is at their disposal, and are able to use it well.

That is why we have established a £235 million teacher training programme in IT. That substantial amount of money is needed precisely because of the demoralisation that my hon. Friend described, and because there are very low levels of teacher IT capacity and ability in many schools. I take this opportunity to state that I do not believe that that is because of any Luddism or backward-looking approaches on the part of teachers. The overwhelming majority of teachers want to use IT, and believe that children will benefit from it, but have not been given the training and the opportunity in the classroom to develop their ability and move it forward.

I turn now to the point raised by the hon. Member for East Antrim (Mr. Beggs). I believe that the levels of competence and capacity in many of the country's schools—it is probably less of a problem in Northern Ireland, which is leading the way in this area, as in many others—are still very low. The last thing that teachers need at this stage is to be told, "You will do this or that." Teachers must be encouraged to believe that, by acquiring the relevant skills and qualifications, they will be able to do their jobs better. My knowledge of the teaching profession leads me to believe—quite profoundly—that the overwhelming majority of teachers want to benefit from training, and will take the opportunity to do so on a voluntary basis.

I acknowledge that, in two or three years, I might return to the House and say something slightly different. For instance, if we were achieving 95 per cent. levels of competence, and 5 per cent. of teachers said that they did not want training, rather than 5 per cent. or 10 per cent. levels of competence and 80 per cent. of teachers wanting to do better, my answer might be slightly different. However, in the context of the present situation in England and Wales, the level of competence and skill on the one hand and enthusiasm on the other leads me to believe that the voluntary method is the best way to proceed.

That is why we have established a substantial teacher training programme. It aims to raise teachers who have a low or zero level of competence to a level of some competence, and, critically, also aims to ensure that people can apply their educational expertise and move it forward in particular disciplines. We have commissioned a tendering process that the Teacher Training Agency is carrying through, and tenders close on 20 November this year. We shall see what bids come in from people seeking to provide teacher training of the kind that we have described.

We have already received substantial and good bids from consortiums of local education authorities, colleges and so on. We have also received some talented and good bids from IT companies and educational organisations, often working together in order to overcome the problem—to which my hon. Friend referred—of teachers receiving a bit of training and no more. That would be a waste of money—my hon. Friend's point was very appropriate.

We also take my hon. Friend's point that it is no use training teachers but providing little on-going support. The present LEA adviser system is very patchy: only half of LEAs have a very good IT support system. That system has been run down in the past, and must be rebuilt.

Mr. David Taylor

I accept that. I worked for a local authority that had a very good LEA support system. Is it not possible to invest in all LEAs in order to bring the performance of the patchy ones to the level of the best?

Mr. Clarke

I hope, and believe, that that will be one result of this process. Although some commercial companies provide support to individual schools—for example, through school management systems and administration, which is an important support offered to local schools—there is no doubt that we need a broader, better network. That might be best offered through a more efficient local authority network system.

I also concede my hon. Friend's important point that there are key pedagogic issues regarding how technology is used in the classroom.

When I took on my ministerial responsibilities, I discovered that some of those issues had not been fully addressed, and in my opinion they remain to be fully addressed. I am not sure which is the best form of technology to provide in the classroom. Is it a whiteboard? Is it a better developed overhead projector? Is it a load of PCs? We have limited resources, and the pedagogic issues, subject by subject, age by age, are different. They need to be thought through carefully, for the reasons that my hon. Friend identified—if they are not, we shall have inadequate results and wasted resources.

In that context, I emphasise that we are conducting a review of the national curriculum for the year 2000, and that the way in which IT can and should be used most effectively in different subject areas is being specifically addressed. I hope that that gives my hon. Friend some reassurance.

I make two concluding points. First, I wish to comment on the Luddite opinions quoted by my hon. Friend—from which he dissociated himself—from articles by John Clare in the Daily Telegraph. There is a view that all this money is wasted—that IT can offer nothing, and that it diverts education from the fundamentals in which traditional education has led.

I reject that view, as do the Government. I believe that the teachers to whom my hon. Friend spoke rejected it. They understand that the future lies with the IT society. The older of us may regret that, but it is a fact, and it is the way to go forward. If we leave our children ill equipped to deal with that society, we do them no service. The argument in that Daily Telegraph article—that we should leave it all aside—is a fundamentally ill-considered view, which is rejected by the vast majority of people in education in this country.

I was rather shocked to see that, in the response to the Prime Minister's launch of further spending on Friday 6 November, some spokespeople of other parties—lining up with John Clare—simply said that the money was being wasted, and that it would be better spent on books. I think that the Conservative party lined up with the Luddite tendency.

Finally, I turn to the specific subject of the debate—IT provision in rural primary schools. As my hon. Friend coherently argued, IT is especially important to rural primary schools. Small schools need stronger communities, including IT communities, to offer stimulation, and to support what they do. That is why, in the initiatives that we have taken forward, we have given specific priority to rural primary schools.

First, we have said that, in distributing the £105 million of standards fund money for the national grid for learning, local education authorities should take specific account of the additional needs of primary schools, small schools and isolated schools. Money from that fund will be targeted—extra priority will be given to rural primary schools, for the reasons stated.

Mr. David Taylor

How will that targeting take place—through the LEA or by a more direct route?

Mr. Clarke

It is through the LEA, because that item of the standards fund is allocated through local education authorities, but the guidance that we have issued specifically asked them to give particular attention to that need. I urge my hon. Friend to tell his local education authority that it should give specific priority to the schools in his constituency when it allocates that resource.

On teacher training, we have specifically recognised—the second element in the funding—the need to focus on rural schools. Although the funding made available to a school will be based mainly on the number of teachers in the school, we want to recognise the special difficulties of small schools by allocating a specific lump sum of £750 to every school, regardless of size, followed by an amount for each teacher.

For example, if the amount per teacher in England was £500, a three-teacher school would have a total of £2,250, including the lump sum—equivalent to £750 per teacher. A 30-teacher school, with 10 times as many teachers, would have a total of £15,750, equivalent to £525 per teacher, or 70 per cent. of the figure per teacher of the three-teacher school.

Mr. David Taylor

My hon. Friend represents a seat in a county that is largely rural. Leicestershire is less rural, but nevertheless has problems of access. Will he confirm that, in establishing the level of funding, he will pay particular attention to travelling costs and the availability of courses?

Mr. Clarke

We shall give particular attention to the issues that my hon. Friend raises. I emphasise that we are taking account of the specific needs of IT in rural schools. I hope that that discrimination in favour of rural schools will be welcomed.

I conclude by again congratulating my hon. Friend on securing the debate. The subject is important, and I am glad that he has highlighted it.

Madam Speaker

Order. The House ordered last Thursday that I should not adjourn until any message from the Lords relating to the Scotland Bill had been received. As no such message has yet been received, I must now suspend the sitting. Arrangements will be made for the Division bells to ring five minutes before I resume the Chair, in order for me to adjourn the House at that time.

10.29 pm

Sitting suspended.

On resuming

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at sixteen minutes to Eleven o'clock.