Spend more, not less on school ICT

A few years ago I fell for the official Government line when Becta announced (pre-bank crisis) that school ICT spending was unsustainably high. Of course this kind of talk fired up the apologists for free, open source software and as the...


A few years ago I fell for the official Government line when Becta announced (pre-bank crisis) that school ICT spending was unsustainably high. Of course this kind of talk fired up the apologists for free, open source software and as the recession bit the idea of saving money grew.

Obvious cuts could be made in software costs, energy consumption and technical support but few took up the challenge. Then came the big cuts and the new Coalition Gov axed nearly all BIG IT projects setting the mood music for the possibility of further money saving through technological change maybe like low energy thin-client workstations running off free, open source software (stop me if you have heard this one)?

I made two mistakes. The first was to accept that ICT spending in schools was unsustainable and the second was to muddle up cuts with cost savings through change. Dealing with the latter first; cutting is easy but changing is hard. So cuts trump change every time. The first point is about how much ICT costs in schools it’s not as bad as we think. See if you agree:

Question 1: What does modern ICT in schools cost for each child?

Add up the cost of the following:

  1. Hardware annualised write down costs
  2. Software purchase and licensing
  3. Paper, Ink and toner consumption (including photocopying)
  4. Electricity consumption (desktop, laptop, servers, switches and air con)
  5. Net/web services.
  6. Technical support (3 technicians per 1000 students)

... then divide the annual cost by the number of students. I’ve been doing this for years so I will spare you the sums.

It’s about £300 per year.

Question 2: How are schools funded?

Simple, they are funded per student using a formula that takes into account a bewildering but logical array of factors related to students’ needs. For secondary school education the OECD average is £4000, UK average about £5000, Independent Schools about £15,000

Let’s go for £5000.

Ergo the (per student) capita ICT spend is maxing out at about 6% per pupil.

(For comparison 40-50% of the per capita amount goes on teachers and teaching assistants the rest on buildings, admin staff and other resources).

Personally I don’t think this percentage is high. Sure it could be reduced by half if we all used FOSS, low energy computing technologies and reduced the numbers of support staff but even more could be saved by reducing the ever growing army of non-teaching staff in general. Cutting is easier than changing after all.

Of course it’s always worth eliminating waste, excessive consumption and so on, just on ethical grounds, but even all added together we could only reduce ICT spending to 3% of the allowance.

But why bother? I think we should actually spend up to 10-12% of the per capita allowance for each student on ICT...but why and on what?

Spending More on ICT

The reality is that IT/ICT just carries on innovating and developing. The evolutionary biologist would recognise ‘jump mutations’, ‘drift’ and ‘dead-ends’ in the products thrown up by changes in technology, the DNA of our computing devices. The biologist would also simply shrug at the pile of dead ends, experiments that did not survive, and recognise the lumbering Dinosaurs as old friends.

There are two responses to this process of random innovation (mutation).

1) Accept the purposeless of the emergence of new technology and rely on ‘natural selection’ to allow only the fittest to survive.

2) Adopt an ontological stance and move towards a creationist model of ICT, that of ‘a work finished’ and thus its purpose to be articulated.

The latter is how many senior pedagogues in schools see ICT. It is largely mysterious and awesome as well as threatening. Many, many schools are seriously in danger of fossilising their ICT in a turn of the century Windows Network paradigm. My concern is that cutting the spend in school ICT will just make it worse and there will be School ICT with its own liturgy and there will be ICT that happens in the rest of the world.

There is little point trying to evaluate the benefits of ICT now in schools and extrapolating into the future nor is there any real point in denigrating it. It just is and it will evolve.

In the messy real life model of ICT there are no right answers so we should stop asking our procurers to get it right. It’s ok to make mistakes: It’s not ok to stand still.

The process of natural selection better explains the success and failure of modern IT devices.
No designer expected texting on Mobile phones to be so successful, nor the Web, nor ‘social Networking, nor the iPad. Many designers on the other hand expected Palmtops to become popular by replacing Filofaxes; Netbooks to run on Linux (and be a bit more popular than they are) and Google did not expect Google Wave to become extinct so quickly. And Android, well what can you say?

This year will see 3D go mainstream and Tablet devices galore. Both in my crystal ball will be key to schools one day, but that day can not come unless we keep up ICT spending in schools and indeed increase it.

We should be free to get it wrong, just so long as we only spend 10%. Something to talk about at the BETT show next week?

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