Back to School: Funding the future of classroom computing - No one can question the importance of Information Technology to both children and teachers. David Guest reports on the problem of affording it

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INFORMATION Technology is rapidly permeating education for all age groups, but its growth is being hampered by the debate on funding. This has two distinct aspects: finding the money to buy the equipment, and funding the training of teachers to make the best use of it.

Schools raise the money for computers in various ways; in their equipment budgets, through PTA activities, from Government grants (largely directed at primary schools in the past two years) and by other means.

As an example of 'other means', earlier this year Tesco ran a scheme whereby money spent in its stores earned vouchers that could be redeemed against Acorn computer equipment. When the scheme began, Acorn expected to deliver 2,000 computers, but in the event supplied 3,000, plus 600 printers. The companies involved are expected to repeat the programme next year, but reports that schools were selling surplus vouchers to other schools will prompt them to tighten the rules. Schools are helped by the policies of computer suppliers, among whom education discounts are common.

Outright purchase of equipment is one option, but increasingly schools find leasing more attractive. Research Machines, a UK hardware supplier that specialises in supplying schools and colleges, reports that the proportion of its business done through leasing is growing rapidly.

The Government monitors computer use in schools at a low level of resolution. Its computer access factors, measuring the number of computers in a school and the number of pupils per computer, give little indication of the intensity of use. 'We are building auditing tools into our networked systems, to measure regularity of use,' says Research Machines schools marketing manager Barry Taylor, 'How effective the systems are in the pupils' learning process is something schools will have to evaluate.'

A verdict on effectiveness seems to be suspended for the moment. In general curricular work, where computers tend to be used as an additional resource to reinforce lessons taught by conventional means, teachers give the current crop of systems a mixed report.

On the plus side, standard packages like word processing are valuable to encourage the idea of drafting, to highlight and correct mistakes, and to help overcome problems of handwriting; in the debit column, the complaint that educational software is patchy in quality and suitability continues to be heard.

Where computers are concerned, there is a genuine danger that the pupils will know more about the machines than the teacher. 'Staff are in danger of looking like dinosaurs,' said one teacher. 'There's not enough money in staff development. Colleges and schools often have the resources but the teachers don't know how to use them.'

Derbyshire County Council, a pioneer of IT in education, put pounds 57,200 this year into its Educational Support Centre for IT, where teachers are trained and programs are developed. But funding for staff training is, like other aspects of education spending, coming under pressure.