Technology crisis in schools

27 Mar 2003

With among the highest ratios of computers to pupils in Europe and a €340m spend on information and communications technology (ICT) projects that have delivered high-speed internet access to both primary and secondary-level institutions, Irish schools have just completed the first phase in a 10-year plan that will make them global leaders in their adoption and management of technology.

By 2004 fibre networks will connect all the country’s educational establishments, creating a unique virtual learning environment that will reinvent the whole process of education. Collaborative learning will start to enter the classroom, giving pupils the opportunity to gain skills that will catch the eye of high-value industries.

The only problem is that all this activity is in North Ireland. In the Republic where politicians frequently pledge to bring equality of computer access to its citizens, bridging what’s known as the digital divide, the education system has fallen so far behind its nearest neighbours — at least 10 years, according to some observers — that it has long-term repercussions for the economic future of the State. The biggest digital divide could become the North South border.

“The reality is that we don’t have broadband in schools; we don’t even have a significant number of ISDN or ADSL [asymmetric digital subscriber line] connections,” admits Jerome Morrissey, director of the National Centre for Technology in Education (NCTE), an agency set up by the Department of Education and Science. “Up until last year Eircom had provided 100pc internet access to schools but we suspect that 20-30pc are not using it significantly.”

The difference between the two education systems has roots in the way the two countries set about tackling the issue of technology in schools. As far back as the late Eighties members of Northern Ireland’s schools council identified flaws and began to look at ways of improving the situation.

“We had a government programme that was very schools-based and individualised,” recalls John Anderson, a school inspector and leading figure in the education initiative. “It didn’t really make any progress.”

The group drew up a strategy that was launched in 1997 following on from a KPMG survey. “At the time schools couldn’t do the budgetary planning to sustain investment in technology and teachers didn’t feel they had enough support advice or training,” says Anderson.

Such fundamental problems helped decide a course of action that would take it down a very different road to the Republic – a centralised approach both in terms of strategy and purchasing that became known as Classroom 2000, or C2K.

“Traditionally there has been a separate curriculum network and a separate administration network,” explains Anderson on the wider implications of the plan. “They are now being integrated onto a single network.”

In the Republic, meanwhile, the NCTE had been set up in 1998 to explore ways of integrating ICT into schools. The decision was to work within the existing infrastructure whereby the different primary and second-level institutions retain their independence, often making their own decisions on where to spend its technology grants.

A wide range of projects have been rolled out since 2000 as part of a three-year €107.93m action plan that comes to an end in December. There are increasing question marks over the long-term benefits of this initiative.

“The big problem is that the schools are independent and like to do their own thing,” says Morrissey. “There are cultural differences and uniqueness in schools in the South compared to the uniformity in the UK and Northern Ireland. We have to take note of these differences. Another unique feature in Ireland is that schools don’t talk to each other. There isn’t that much intercommunication or collaboration. And there’s even a competitive element in communities where there aren’t a lot of kids.”

The policy of the NCTE and Department of Education and Science has been to work with the grass roots culture rather than fight it, piloting various projects on a school-by-school basis.

“You could make the argument that although they lose out on economies of scale, we’ve found that if you give money to schools, rather than a cardboard box of goods, they use it a lot better. There is no ideological thing against central purchasing,” Morrissey adds. “It was considered. I was in there during the initial discussions in 1998. The decision was the best at the time and I supported it. That doesn’t mean as we go forward we won’t look at other models.”

At present the schools each receive grant aid but ultimately decide on what to buy for themselves within NCTE guidelines. “This leads to local buy-in and, in general, positively empowers schools to actively engage with the initiative,” he argues.

He does, however, admit that the grant aid approach was a quick fit in 1998 to secure an early gain at a time when the level of ICT in schools was low. The first figures were good. Between 1998 and 2000 upwards of 60,000 computers were purchased by schools, putting the Republic well ahead of the North, which was bogged down in its attempt to buy in its infrastructure from a single supplier. “We lost 18 months trying to do a single managed service contract for everything,” says Anderson. “It came to the point where it wasn’t achievable.”

But the North remained true to its vision and its main objective for centralisation. “The scale and organisation of the service here made it attractive to do a centralised strategy,” says Anderson. “Our schools do have devolved budgets and we could equally have gone the other way, as they do in England, but chose not to. With central purchasing you can guarantee where the public investment goes and protect it. In England, the schools are more restrained and don’t have the long-term planning.”

Anderson’s experience as a school inspector convinced him and his colleagues of the failure of localised initiatives. “Each of the five local authorities had up until that point taken responsibility for taking forward the policy of computers in schools. So there were five different standards, five different sorts of computers. By taking a centralised approach we could have a standard system. Only when you have a standard system could you do the things we planned.”

Apart from the teachers and pupils, the biggest beneficiaries of the Northern Ireland approach have been the IT companies that have signed multimillion euro deals and become involved in an ongoing managed service solution. Microsoft is one of them.

Enterprise sales manager Derrick McCourt worked on C2K and has found it hard trying to sell anything similar to the South. “There are economies of scale a government can achieve by central funding,” he says, questioning the wisdom of the grant aid approach. “If that’s the way they want to do it, at least create frameworks and standards for schools to adhere to. You can’t ask the schools to create infrastructure.”

He makes the point that if you don’t have a managed service run by the suppliers, then the teachers effectively become ad hoc IT managers.

McCourt wouldn’t hazard a guess at how far behind he thought the South had fallen because he didn’t believe the two school systems were even comparable. “I don’t believe that what’s happened in Northern Ireland can be achieved without a centralised strategy and a joined up approach between the various bodies,” he says. “You will get ICT in some classrooms in the South, you will have individual schools that will have excellence driven by individual teachers who have a passion, but if you don’t have the infrastructure how is a small primary school going to create something that’s best in class? It’s almost an impossibility.”

Such a bleak warning only adds to the diminishing reputation of Ireland’s education system. Brendan Butler, director of ICT Ireland, a body that represents the interests of high-tech multinationals, has similar concerns.

“Only recently through the IT schools initiative has there been some investment in terms of making younger people computer literate, but we came at it late,” he says. “Various people will say we’re one of the best in Europe, but we have huge doubts about that. You might have internet connections and PCs in every school in Ireland but we’re fairly sure that there aren’t always the people to teach the subject and there isn’t a consistent approach in terms of maintaining and upgrading the equipment.”

It all adds up to what Butler perceives as Ireland’s diminishing reputation as a place of educational excellence. “Industry leaders tell us that they don’t feel the second-level education system is anywhere near as strong as it was five to 10 years ago. That’s really worrying because very well educated people was one of our trademarks for attracting foreign investment,” he adds.

If there is an emerging shortfall, it suggests that the Government’s high-end aspiration to move Ireland towards a knowledge economy has not been thought through as far as the schools are concerned. “There is a demographic deficit. Moving up the value chain demands a number of qualified scientists and they’re just not coming through the system. Cracks are beginning to appear,” says Butler.

McCourt sees a wider problem and a growing digital divide among children: “The Republic is putting itself forward as a knowledge economy but we’re going to run out of knowledge workers. It’s all going to come from kids who have PCs at home. We’re not getting down to the grass roots level of society.”

Like Butler, he believes the solution must come from inside government departments: “If there’s no higher political intent then it’s impossible for individuals within a body to make things happen. The guys in Northern Ireland are riding on the back of UK government initiatives. On top of that you have a group of individuals that has taken some risks. That’s probably what we’re missing.”

“There’s been a piecemeal approach,” says Butler, “but there’s a big disconnect between seeing an initiative right the way through. Some schools will be strong, others weak and there’s no consistency. You need a change in mindset.”

Morrissey is quick to point out that the NCTE has been involved in numerous projects and pilots that have been a resounding success. An Ennis scheme whereby clusters of schools were backed up by local companies who supplied the IT support suggests that a centralised managed service approach is not the only way forward. He also argues that a single vendor solution is not always the answer.

“We spoke to Microsoft about a similar arrangement to the one it has in Northern Ireland but opted for its new schools agreement instead,” he explains.

The deal offers significant licence discounts to the education sector but Morrissey is still concerned. “It still places significant cost burdens, initial and recurrent, on schools,” he says.

He adds that the NCTE is currently managing a study in 10 schools to evaluate the effectiveness and comparative qualities of Sun’s StarOffice package. “If this product is seen by schools as being as good and as effective as Microsoft Office then the NCTE will recommend it as a significantly cheaper option,” he says.

Merrick isn’t impressed: “This isn’t a Microsoft issue. There are other frustrated IT companies and worldwide players in Ireland that are suffering similar frustrations.”

Sx3, an indigenous Northern Ireland firm, is heavily involved in C2K and its managing director shares some of Microsoft’s concerns. “We looked at the education market in the Republic,” says Noel Brady. “It’s only box shifting and not what we’re interested in. I didn’t get a particular sense of an overall underlying objective.”

The vendors were reluctant to specify savings the Department of Education and Science could make by centralised purchasing but it was clearly in the millions. Morrissey insisted that a one-stop strategy for purchasing and infrastructure building was an option that was not necessarily ruled out. “The existing policy for ICT runs up to December 2003,” he says. “Then the department will be drafting a new policy for the next four or five years. A lot of things will be looked at.”

If it looks at the conclusions drawn by the head of the British Educational Communications and Technology Agency, a UK body loosely equivalent to the NCTE, it will see an organisation regretting the fact that the UK is simply too big to effectively introduce a centralised managed services strategy.

Such a model, it believes, is best suited to countries with a population of under five million. New Zealand, Finland and Singapore are examples of successful rollout and leaders in the field of ICT in schools. It’s a list that the Republic of Ireland looks unlikely to join for quite some time to come.

Computer to pupil ratios: North v South

In the Republic, the schools census for 2002 is still being collated, but the NCTE estimates that the ratio of computers to pupils will be brought down by one point both in primary and secondary schools. This means there will be one computer for every 17 primary school pupils and one for every 12 in secondary.

In Northern Ireland the ratios increase as pupils progress through their education.

Age group Ratio
Primary 1 per 10 pupils
Post-primary, first stage 1 per 9 pupils
Post-primary, second stage 1 per 7 pupils
Post-primary, 16+ 1 per 6.5 pupils

While these figures favour the North, John Anderson is wary of drawing too many conclusions. “Numbers ratio is attractive as a relatively straightforward way of attracting funding but you get to the point where it turns into a trap,” he says. “It focuses people’s attention into getting more boxes and away from practice. You reach a point where you have enough technology and you have to change the focus on to practice in the classroom.”

By Ian Campbell