The annual BETT education technology trade show opened this morning with a keynote speech from secretary of state for education and skills, Charles Clarke.
Clarke pledged an additional £25 million to fund schools' acquisition of interactive whiteboards. "ICT transforms education and the way that children learn," said Clarke. "Effective use of the latest technology [should be used] to meet the personal needs of every learner, raising their aspirations and achievement."
Clarke also announced a freeing up of direct education funding so schools are able to allocate more of their budgets to ICT (information and communications technology).
ICT spending is on the up: in 1998 the average primary school IT spend was £68m; in 2003 it was £201m. Secondary schools, meanwhile, now spend around £223m per annum on ICT, compared with £143m five years ago.
ICT education issues are also taking on an international dimension - and not just through increased use of video-conferencing facilities to engage with schools in other countries. Yesterday, Charles Clarke hosted the inaugural international seminar on ICT, attracting education ministers from Brazil, Poland and Italy.
Britain is one of the most advanced countries in terms of implementing ICT into mainstream education. In this country, teachers' and pupils' use of technology is now fairly sophisticated. This was something identified by Toshiba's Richard Lomer, who used the BETT exhibition to launch a new Centrino-based notebook aimed specifically at the UK education market.
The Portege A100 will have batteries lasting up to four hours, wireless connectivity, a Secure Digital memory card slot rather than an outdated floppy disk drive and a built-in DVD rewriter. Its light grey and white casing is designed to give students ownership prestige, Toshiba claims.
With the exception of Australia (the only other country outside Toshiba's native Japan where the Portege A100 is being launched), Lomer believes Britain is ahead of world in ICT. "The UK education sector is significantly more advanced than the rest of Europe", he claimed today.
Lomer claims UK schools are migrating from desktops to portable computers as the initial wave of PCs supplied to them under the Computers for Schools and Computers for Teachers schemes have reached the end of their useful life. It's telling, claimed Lomer, that such initiatives are now known as Laptops for Schools.
Manufacturers exhibiting at BETT claim good looks as well as portability and wireless functionality are now part of schools' standard expectations. Whiteboards and other display systems at this year's BETT are bigger and better looking than of yore while the PCs and laptops on display from the likes of RM, Time, Systemax, Toshiba, Apple and Viglen were generally smaller and neater with more design focus.
Display and video-conferencing equipment supplier Tandberg was showing off a range of solutions from individual video screens to ones designed for classroom use, some of which were wireless. And some of the healthiest clamour surrounded Sony's stand where visitors could try out the company's laptops and digital video cameras and have a lesson in video editing.
One of the most interesting stands was i-desk's which showed off its modular, jigsaw approach to robust desk construction, the catch being that the PCs themselves were an integral part of the desks. On each desk a thick metal stand supported the LCD display while the CPU was attached to the underside of the desk. Depending on the schools' requirements, a metal bar can be used to cover ports and drives so pupils are prevented from tampering with them.
The tailormade-to-order system also conserves energy by running up to 10 PCs off a dual mains socket with cabling running along an enclosed tube along the far side of a row of desks. Screens, meanwhile, are powered directly from the machine they serve, also reducing electrical requirements.
BETT, now in its 21st year, attracted more than 500 exhibitors to its London Olympia venue and runs until Saturday 10th. There is plenty in its packed interior on which attending school representatives can spend their eLearning Credits.
As well as a good showing of interactive whiteboard manufacturers, video-conferencing companies and display manufacturers, there is a vast area devoted to both mainstream primary and secondary educational software and teaching resources and to those with special learning needs.
New for this year is a Schoolzone where visitors can find out about online resources available for free and that have been recommended and reviewed by teachers, while the Specialist Schools Trust is concentrating on helping teachers overcome their diffidence in using ICT with the launch of an ICT Register or experts.