Education made as easy as ELC

E-learning credits give schools a share of £100m for ICT each year. But how are they being spent? Virginia Matthews reports
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The Independent Online

If some of the acronyms in modern education are hard to decipher, then the thinking behind the invention of electronic, or "e-"learning credits (ELCs) is refreshingly clear. In a bid to boost access to ICT and multimedia resources in English schools, the Government has, since 2002, set aside a £100m annual cash fund for teachers to spend on the software and digital content they need for pupils between the ages of four and 18. The total budget will have amounted to some £330m by the time the current scheme ends in August 2006 - calculated as a £1,000 cash fund per school each year, plus nearly £10 per pupil - but beyond that point, the future of ELCs remains unclear.

If some of the acronyms in modern education are hard to decipher, then the thinking behind the invention of electronic, or "e-"learning credits (ELCs) is refreshingly clear. In a bid to boost access to ICT and multimedia resources in English schools, the Government has, since 2002, set aside a £100m annual cash fund for teachers to spend on the software and digital content they need for pupils between the ages of four and 18. The total budget will have amounted to some £330m by the time the current scheme ends in August 2006 - calculated as a £1,000 cash fund per school each year, plus nearly £10 per pupil - but beyond that point, the future of ELCs remains unclear.

Critically for schools, the annual ELC handout is genuine new money for a genuinely new development in classrooms; rather than any "robbing Peter to pay Paul" redistribution of the Government's existing funds for education. A recognition, in short, that schools are now spending well beyond the traditional arena of chalks and traditional teaching aids.

The system is quite simple. Each June, local education authorities (LEAs) are issued with a new tranche of annual e-learning credits for schools to spend on anything from Key Stage One numeracy or literacy software to more advanced programmes for sixth formers. Prices can vary from £10 to well over the £1,000 to £2,000 mark for a software package that can include an electronic interactive whiteboard as part of the deal. The only catch is that the product must be accredited by Curriculum Online, the DfES's own portal - which lists more than 7,500 approved items. In order to gain official approval, products must be designed specifically to complement the National Curriculum in England. Decisions as to how, specifically, the money is spent is left entirely up to the individual school.

While ELC's are designed primarily for software, many teachers are lobbying hard behind the scenes for the current eligibility rules to be relaxed to allow the purchase of major items of hardware too.

Schools are given until the following August to spend the money; at which point they file returns revealing any shortfall in their spending and the Government reclaims any leftover cash. In the pilot 2002 to 2003 year, some £26.8m was spent out of that year's trial budget of £30m while for the year to 31 August 2004, ELC spending reached £56.4m or just over half the allocated budget, according to the DfES.

"Much more money will have been committed but not reported," says a Department spokesman. "Returns from software suppliers indicate a sizeable continuing demand for multimedia resources and we are confident therefore that LEA returns at the end of this year will show that most, if not all, of the £100m budget will have been used."

Dominic Savage, director general of the British Educational Suppliers Association (BESA), which represents 80 or so of the leading publishers in this multi-million pound market, says that while a last-minute feeding frenzy by schools "is not to be encouraged", the now-traditional August rush to spend ELCs is a reflection of the fixed testing and exams period in the academic year, rather than any reluctance on the part of schools to plan their ICT expenditure in advance.

While Savage notes that lack of ICT proficiency among teachers themselves is still an issue to be grappled with, there have been concentrated efforts to bring the profession into the digital age via initiatives such as the New Opportunities Fund for ICT training and the Laptops for Teachers scheme. "In the past few years, ICT has begun to have an impact on the teaching of literally every subject in the curriculum," he says, "to the extent where the use of computer software is becoming routine in both the primary and secondary sector and is being extended well beyond the daily maths and literacy hours."

Although there is still resistance to state-of-the-art classroom ICT among some purists - particularly in the arts subjects - Savage reports enthusiastic take-up of whiteboards too among a growing number of English literature departments who use the latest technology to compare, line by line, the merits of various Shakespeare productions or to study in-depth the hidden meanings in the text.

Savage rejects suggestions that some schools have been unable to find enough new software on which to spend their ELCs - "I can't believe that 7,500 products on Curriculum Online represents insufficient choice" - but he is prepared to agree that while there are "no gaping holes" in the coverage of the curriculum, it is true that "some minority subjects are not as well covered as the mainstream topics".

Aside from the big print firms such as Heinemann, Pearson and Collins, who are moving with enthusiasm into the digital age, the UK has a large number of relatively small educational publishers whose forte is in developing, rather than marketing ICT products for schools. As the biggest independent distributor of educational software products in the country, R-E-M is uniquely placed to chart their impact on schools. Managing director David Bennett says: "I certainly don't see ICT as a panacea for everything that is wrong with our education system, but it's an important new tool for both teachers and learners and one that with the help of ELCs is helping to transform many areas of the curriculum."

Not surprisingly, Bennett, like Savage, believes that the Government should extend the ELC scheme well beyond the current 2006 deadline.

'We've harnessed the talents of our own staff'

Peter Humphries is head of geography at the 1,000-pupil Sir John Nelthorpe School in Brigg, North Lincolnshire, which will be given specialist status in ICT, maths and science this September. He believes that the new challenge for educational publishers may be to better the efforts of teachers themselves. "We started an intranet in the geography department in 1997 and from those humble beginnings, we have developed a whole school network that today represents a managed, internet-based learning resource for all our pupils.

"Most excitingly for us, we have harnessed the talents of our own teaching staff to create our own, home-grown programmes with the help of 'Course Creator' software that was purchased with ELCs.

"We have already purchased a lot of software via the ELC system, and we will undoubtedly purchase more once its value has been assessed.

"The big challenge for professional publishers though may be to better what we have now begun to create in-house."

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