Finding the funds for ICT

In these financially tough times, Valerie Thompson, chief executive of the e-Learning Foundation, investigates how schools can fund and manage investment in technology based resources

Since May 2010 the role of ICT in education has come under scrutiny, some might go so far as to say attack, like never before. It started with news that Becta was to lose its funding and hence would close in the spring of 2011. And from then the changes came thick and fast.

The Home Access programme was concluded and not extended; the BSF programme, which contained extensive ICT investment, was cancelled; Harnessing Technology funds disappeared; ICT advisers in local authorities started their redundancy “consultation” and schools no longer had to operate a Virtual Learning Environment (VLE) or offer online home-school links.

And just to make life interesting for schools, overall capital spending looks about to take a major hit, making it hard for schools to both maintain their existing infra-structure and acquire new technology based resources.

So where do schools stand with the use of ICT in education? And if they wish to maintain and grow their investment in technology based resources, how will they finance and manage them?

Growth in adoption

Over the last 20 years schools have progressively adopted technology not just for back office functions and basic communications but increasingly for curriculum delivery. Sceptics claim the case has not been made for the role of ICT for learners, but the benefits have become much clearer over the past five years and increasingly hard to deny. Pupils are more motivated, attention spans increase (especially amongst boys), teachers can tailor a pupil’s programme to their specific abilities and needs, learners can be supported outside the classroom as well as during lessons, and pupils are leaving schools with a set of ICT skills that are absolutely vital to the world of work in the 21st century.

And yes, these are skills more important than tidy handwriting and knowing a bit of Latin!

The adoption continues; most schools now offer a wireless environment across the school allowing portable devices to be used as and when they are required rather than having to troop 30 pupils into the ICT Suite. More and more school learning resources are accessed through the VLE with pupils drawing on resources out of school hours and posting their completed assignments online. And children who have difficulties attending school (traveller children, excluded pupils, children with caring responsibilities, sick children, etc) can now participate in their education and school life in a way that would have been thought impossible in the past.

Where will we find the funds?

The government has been very clear that their policy is one of delegation of responsibility to schools. Whether all the funds will also be delegated remains unclear until all the budgets have been announced. In principle though, it will be down to schools to decide whether ICT remains a major area for investment in the curriculum, and at the heart of the school improvement plan.

Our contact with schools suggests that many have already decided that they will remain on the path they embarked on some time ago and are already planning new programmes for September, involving exciting new technologies and 1:1 provision for pupils.

Inconsistent local authority policies on leasing finance have been a barrier to some schools in the past, but with growing independence comes a new generation of savvy business managers who are more comfortable negotiating the lease finance they need to cover assets that will depreciate over the next three years.

In the past, asking parents to help schools provide the pupils with more resources has been an uncomfortable area for many teachers and governors. Yet when those resources are allocated to an individual child, and allowed home, then the case for parental financial involvement becomes stronger.

The e-Learning Foundation helps schools engage with parents in this way, but on a voluntary basis so that no child is excluded because of their family circumstances. The approach also has the advantages of attracting Gift Aid and grants from the Foundation. This “equity model” is in use with over 500 schools and has allowed schools to stretch limited IT budgets up to 6-fold and move from the ICT suite approach to every child having their own device.

Donations from parents vary from £7 to £20 a month depending on the device in use and the period of time the programme runs. Schools are providing laptops, netbooks, handheld devices like the iPod touch, smartphones and increasingly the new generation of tablet devices. Pupils respond positively to them and teachers are finding better and better ways of deploying the technology to support learners.

Pressure on headcount

With the new budgets comes pressure to keep headcount numbers down. So any new programme that involves large amounts of administration is inevitably going to raise concerns over who will do the work. The Foundation is able to provide a service called the Donation Management Service that handles all the donation collection work, responds to queries from parents, provides the reports on donations that schools needs via a web portal and liaises with the Inland Revenue over the Gift Aid.

Nearly 200 schools now use this service and in a recent survey carried out by the Foundation, nearly half said it had made a “significant difference” to the workload involved in collecting regular donations from parents.

New opportunities

Most children now have good access to a computer and broadband at home. So the concerns that used to be voiced by teachers about deploying technology to complete homework and independent learning are abating. However, the problem has not entirely gone away. About 1 million school-age children still cannot go online at home and while that number is steadily reducing it remains an area of concern due to the growing assumptions that all children are now connected to the Internet.

In our survey we asked teachers how they felt pupils were affected by having no access to a computer and the Internet at home. From 486 responses, 43 per cent “agreed strongly” that children were seriously advantaged, and 42 per cent “agreed”. The government has expressed concerns about the attainment gap, yet it is being left to schools to address this particular area of educational disadvantage.

The new generation of low cost portable devices can be purchased by schools, part funded by parents and used by all children for when and where they want to learn i.e. at home, in the classroom, in the after school club and at the child-minders’. The huge total cost of providing and maintaining ICT suites (i.e. the total cost of ownership) becomes more and more difficult to financially justify when compared to 1:1 provision of a device that can be utilised 24/7.

Pupil Premium
As well as the increased delegation of decision-making and budgets to the school level there is the matter of the Pupil Premium. Intended to help schools address the attainment gap amongst children from low income families, some of this funding could be used to address the digital divide and ensure pupils who have poor home access are equipped with the resources they need.

In the survey carried out by the e-Learning Foundation, 29 per cent of the 500 respondents who do not run any form of home access programme said they planned to use some of their Pupil Premium funds to address 1:1 access, while that number increased to 51 per cent amongst schools already running a programme.

So is ICT history? The answer has got to be absolutely not, but in the absence of any enthusiasm from the Department for Education, the loss of Becta and a major reduction in local authority advisory services, schools will need to develop their own strategies, learn from the best schools, re-visit policies on leasing and parental contributions and find new sources of expertise, inspiration and support.

About the e-Learning Foundation

The e-Learning Foundation is a national education charity dedicated to overcoming the digital divide and ensuring that every child in the UK has the access they need to a computer and Internet, at home as well as at school. By following the Foundation’s advice, schools can significantly enhance their own funds with parental donations, charitable grants and Gift Aid, in order to fund 1:1 provision even in areas of disadvantage.

For more information