he New Opportunities Fund programme for training teachers and librarians to use information and communications technology effectively is probably the biggest staff development scheme in the history of British education.
A tenth of the pound;230 million budget has been assigned to Scotland, and so far 21,800 Scottish teachers have registered out of the 49,000 eligible in publicly funded schools. Others interested in learning when and how to use ICT in the classroom have until March 2002 to sign up. The programme winds down a year later.
"This is a superb professional development opportunity which as many teachers as possible should take up, but time is running out," warns HM Inspector Alan Ogg, in charge of quality assurance for the scheme.
"ICT plays an increasing role in society and work, and education has to reflect this. It's not a matter of catching up but of bringing the profession as a whole up to the level of best practice."
The free training, which assumes you have basic computing skills, is costing the Government at least pound;450 per person. Sessions focus on how to use ICT to improve learning and teaching, including teaching pupils with severe and complex difficulties.
The training is provided by local authorities, higher education institutions, teacher education institutions and businesses. It includes face-to-face sessions, self-study, tutormentor support, exemplar lessons, classroom tasks and assignments, discussion groups, online assistance, in-service days and after-school surgeries.
"Although funds allocated are for training only and not for providing staff cover, time should be found to do this because ICT is part of every school's development plan," says Mr Ogg.
"In-service time can be devoted to it but a lot of teachers are giving of their own time too, and local solutions often see teachers covering for each other.
"Most local authorities have taken this opportunity seriously and have committed time and finance to it. There's a real sense of partnership between them and the providers and I don't think staff cover is the issue it was when we began in 1999."
By the time the programme ends in March 2003, he believes Scotland will have a solidly ICT-literate teaching profession.
"The profession owes it to itself to take up this opportunity and to share more of the good practice that is already going on in schools. As professionals, teachers tend to be modest about their achievments - too modest - and it should be remembered that teachers learn better from their peers than from anyone else,"he says.
"At any in-service day more is probably learned and shared during the staffroom coffee breaks than the sessions themselves: 'Oh, I must try that.' 'Could you send me a copy of that?' 'Where would I find that?' ICT is a way of expanding the staffroom, the peer learning process, to share best practice across the world.
"Yo* can download ideas, materials or lesson plans from New Zealand, Canada, the USA or wherever, on Shakespeare or whatever. The staffroom is now global. The classroom is now global. It's flexible, accessible and exciting."
Even so, chalk and talk, pen and paper will not be replaced entirely. "It's about when and when not to use ICT," says Mr Ogg. "In planning a lesson, you ask if ICT will help. How? If you use it, you must evaluate. Did it help? Yo* only use it if it enriches the learning experience and is raising achievement.
"ICT will change the learning environment to help make pupils individual and responsible earners. In our quality assurance consultation we spend 80 per cent of our time talking to teachers and they are proud of what they are achieving. The aim now is to bring everyone up to the same level of competence and confidence."
Deputy education minister Nicol Stephen has indicated there will be further funds for ICT training, though it will not be NOF monies. An Executive source confirmed further money has been set aside but it was "bound up with post-McCrone continuing professional development issues". Mr Ogg's advice to teachers is to sign up now.
Alan Ogg will talk about the impact of NOF training on September 19 and 20 at 10am.New Opportunities Fund in Glasgow, tel 0141 242 7800www.nof.org.ukEvery school in Scotland should have a copy of the NOF ICT training pack (the Red Folder, as it is known)
* The number of modern computers (less than four years old) in Scottish schools rose by 23,100 in the year up to September 2000 * Pupil:computer ratios are 7:1 in Scottish secondary schools, 18:1 in primaries and 5:1 in special schools, and falling fast with rapid investment from education authorities and public-private partnerships * England is still ahead of Scotland in pupil:computer ratios, with 13 primary pupils, eight secondary pupils and four special school pupils to a computer (April 2000 figures) * 97 per cent of Scottish secondary schools are connected to the Internet, 64 per cent of primaries and 59 per cent of special schools * 43 per cent of secondary pupils and 6 per cent of primary pupils had an email address at school (Source: Schools Census, recorded in September 2000 and published in June) * By September 2001, 42 per cent of teachers had taken up free ICT training under the New Opportunities Fund scheme (Source: Scottish Executive) * Ministers hope to complete detailed work by next summer on the Scottish Schools Digital Network, effectively an intranet system designed to link all schools to a central curriculum service (Source: Scottish Executive this month) * More than 10,000 teachers have taken up the offer of pound;200 from the Scottish Executive to help buy their own computers. An announcement of the third and last round of money is expected at the SETT show or later this year