Education: Who's on a clapped-out computer?: Pupils trained on yesterday's technology may lose out in the jobs race, warns Fran Abrams

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The Independent Online
In the past five years the Government has spent pounds 165m on computers for schools. But are pupils gaining the technological skills they will need, and is the equipment modern enough?

A survey commissioned by Research Machines, one of the main suppliers of information technology equipment to schools, suggests that school-leavers do not always have the experience that employers want. The problem appears to lie not in the amount of time pupils spend using computers, but in the types they use. Most schools began buying their equipment more than 10 years ago, and much of it may not meet the needs of the Nineties.

More than 80 per cent of the 400 employers, universities and colleges questioned by the researchers felt that school-leavers should have experience of standard 'PC compatible' computers that can use most kinds of software. Many schools now have PC compatibles, but a third are still using older equipment.

John Blyzinskyj, divisional director (marketing) of Research Machines, which supplies more than half of Britain's secondary schools with computers, says: 'Tens of thousands of pupils who learn on computers that are not compatible leave school with inappropriate experience, or experience that will hinder them in getting the first available job or making a smooth entry into higher education.'

Ged Start, editor of PC Today magazine, supports this view. In a previous job, as sales manager of a firm selling Aga cookers, he found that recruits who enjoyed using computers at school floundered when asked to use the equipment in his office.

'From an employer's point of view, if you can hire someone who can already use a PC compatible, you know they will have a head start. Given a choice between people with otherwise equal qualifications, it will tip the balance in an individual's favour.

'You can sit down and go through the basics in half a day with someone who hasn't used a PC, but there will still be a lot of problems and they will need things explained to them.'.

Many schools, however, are happy with the computers they already have. A report published last year by Her Majesty's Inspectorate of Schools on the first year of the technology national curriculum criticised the shortage of computers in some schools, but made no mention of types of computers. Hardware that was 10 years old was reaching the end of its useful service, and some schools found repair costs prohibitive, the inspectors' report stated.

Despite apparently high government spending on such equipment, the inspectors found that 40 per cent of the funds spent by schools came from parents. They also found one secondary school that had only one computer for every 40 pupils, and few schools had a clear policy for replacing ageing equipment.

The National Council for Educational Technology argues that the quality of the software used by pupils is more important than the type of computer on which they use it.

Fred Daly, director of the council, believes computers in schools have two basic functions: to familiarise pupils with the general computing skills they will need later, such as word processing or the use of spreadsheets; and to provide innovative methods of teaching the whole national curriculum.

'There are many computers which went into schools in the early Eighties and are still in use, yet teachers are telling us that they serve an excellent educational function in science, maths or history, for example. The educational quality of the programs is far more important than the technology.

'Compulsory education lasts for 11 years, and by the time today's pupils come out at the other end, the technology will be very different from what we see now. We need to keep our courses and our school system as free from current technology as possible and concentrate on the fundamentals.'

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