A national programme to take teachers out of the classroom to gain experience in industry and enterprise is making huge headway in the Highlands. Around 80 teachers are signed up to the project which lands them in places as diverse as high-tech businesses, a fishing boat, the Northern Constabulary headquarters, recording studios, publishing houses and even the Scottish Parliament.
Industry and Enterprise Awareness for Teachers and Schools (IEATS), launched in November 1998 by Helen Liddell, then minister for education at the Scottish Office, commenced in Highland in April 1999 and will run for an initial three years, though there are hopes to extend it. Placements generally last up to 10 days.
The programme is implemented by a partnership of the National Centre: Education for Work and Enterprise, the local authority and the five education business partership (EBP) areas in Highland. Administration costs were pooled from the partners to appoint a Highland co-ordinator last September and Excellence Funding from the Scottish Executive is matched by Highland Council to provide 100 per cent supply cover for teachers on placements.
Highland's director of education, Bruce Robertson, says: "We have the biggest uptake with 22 per cent of all placements in Scotland because of support from the EBP, and the 100 per cent supply cover is the key to its successful implementation."
Ian Mackintosh, EBP manager for Inverness and Nairn, Badenoch and Strathspey, says: "IEATS fits in well with EBP activities, which are all about easing the transition of young people into business. This is very important regarding technology, which is moving at a frightening rate that makes it doubly important for teachers and schools to keep up with the modern business at the forefront of the IT revolution."
One teacher who swapped the classroom for Silicon Glen is Gerrard Dolan, an English teacher at Dingwall Academy who began his staggered placement at Omnitech, an information technology design company in Inverness, during the Easter holidays this year. The experience, he says, has changed his life.
"It's freshened up my whole approach to teaching and to being a teacher. At the time, pre-McCrone, and with all the Higher Still stuff, I was feeling isolated and frustrated. I'd lost objectivity.
"Omnitech restored my perspective. I found the way they thought pretty inspiring and to be at the cutting edge where decisions affect the survival or otherwise of a small business was stimulating."
Not only did Mr Dolan discover a level of support for education in industry which he says "surprised" and "enlightened" him, but the whole experience had a "fundamental" impact on him.
"It was liberating to be able to talk to so many people about education. Most teachers only really talk to the outside world at parents' evenings.
"I wanted to develop a website on which low-achieving pupils could display their work and to find out more about the IT provision in society. There's a whole revolution from which you can be isolated in your classroom." Mr Dolan cannot imagine now dropping his contacts with the company.
"Gerry is in fact setting up a web-based e-business as an exercise to see how it works and this hopefully will become a school resource," says Omnitech's managing director Ken Abraham, whose company has previously designed websites for schools and had an input to IT teacher training.
"It's important for us to know how education works. There's a difficulty in getting people straight out the education system into a business who can hit the ground running.
"We have pupils on placements for a week, so it makes sense to have teachers too. Naturally, it's good for the company to help sustain the community it operates in, but I intend now to go into Gerry's school to try to contribute more directly."
Both the teacher and the managing director speak highly of the partnership approach IEATS promotes for mutual benefit, but from the education side it is the finance to provide supply cover which schools see as vital.
Karen Cormack, assistant headteacher at Dingwall Academy, explains: "The funding is a huge boost. We're the biggest school in Highland and getting cover can be difficult at the best of times. But under the IEATS programme the money can also go directly to the teacher on placement if, like Gerry, they are willing to use their holiday time. So, it helps supply cover during term and he gets paid extra for the time he devotes during holidays.
"The school has gained. We have a refreshed, energised, bouncing English teacher who has gained so much and whose classroom practice has benefitted. If we could get the cover, we'd get all the staff out that we could. Teachers are having to manage more today, so any management experience must help."
Caroline Wright, the IEATS co-ordinator in Highland appointed last September, covers the 196 primaries, three special schools and 28 secondaries, organising placements from Wick to Kinlochleven, from Badenoch and Strathspey to Skye and Lochalsh.
"We have 80 teachers involved at the moment and it's growing all the time," she says. "We've had a teacher working in the Scottish Parliament and shadowing MSP Fergus Ewing, a teacher working with a publisher, music teachers in recording studios and even a modern studies teacher from Kinlochbervie working a week away on a fishing boat because he wanted to see how the community he teaches in actually works and views life.
"I'd rather teachers told me what they want to do than IEATS shoehorning them into something. There has to be a link with the school's development plan and a lot of placements have been related to ICT, Higher Still and 5-14 environmental studies.
"Teachers can travel to the central belt for placements, though we feel local placements are better because - as in the case of Omnitech, for example - there are reciprocal aspects. Teachers can see what opportunities there are for pupils who don't necessarily want to go on to higher education, and businesses do want teachers and pupils to come and work with them."
Morven MacDonald, a P1P2 class teacher at Culbokie primary in the Black Isle, spent her placement at the Northern Constabulary HQ in Inverness to examine and reflect on "another appraisal system used in a publicly accountable organisation" (which she found "similar" to that used in her school) and to develop teaching and learning in environmental studies (people in society).
"I found the police aware of educational issues and wanting to get as involved as they can. It was good for professional development and for making links."
As with Omnitech, the benefits were reciprocal as PC Aidan Brennan, the youth development officer for the Northern Constabulary, explains: "We took guidance from Morven on how to structure our lessons when we go into schools, how to pitch at the appropriate level for different age groups to deal with issues like personal and road safety, vandalism and drugs.
"I think it was a worthwhile learning process for both her and us. Morven was our first placement and I felt we had a lot to offer her. We are very supportive of the programme."
Ms MacDonald found working for a week in an office environment "incredibly quiet after the classroom, but you do eventually miss the children."
Her acting head at Culbokie, Annie Scott, agreed that the strong links with the police and the police resources for primary schools - packs, videos, CD-Roms and leaflets such as the Safe, Strong and Free materials for pre-school children - were much to the benefit of the school. She also felt the work placement helped develop the teacher's leadership abilities.
"As an unpromoted member of staff, it gave Morven a leadership role. I believe every teacher should have a leadership role in a school and should be able to bring their experiences and skills to bear in the life and ethos of the school.
"In the absence of sabbaticals, we should look for staff to gain from and give of experiences like this. Many primary teachers go straight from school to teacher training college and back into school. It can only be good that they learn about other roles in society."
Ms Scott has herself been inspired to take advantage of the IEATS programme and is going to an IT company.
"We want to set up a website at the school to communicate and exchange ideas with schools around the world. The aim is to help the pupils set it up, develop and update it as necesssary.
"That would give us the opportunity to tackle some IT development and would also help us communicate with the local community, with parents and grandparents.
"It's all about improving communication and it's part of the ethos of achievement. The website would be the perfect place to praise our pupils and to show off their achievements."
Although IT seems to figure high on the participating teachers' agenda, Omnitech's Ken Abraham argues it would be to any teacher's benefit to come to a high-tech business like his, whether ICT is their main concern or not.
"It would be valuable for any teacher of any subject to come here and see the business and how it works. We don't need to be talking IT all the time. The value is in them seeing the problems and challenges of running a small business.
"In that sense, IT should be looked upon as a tool which can be used in any subject rather than simply as a subject in itself.
"Our door is open to other teachers. We want to be doing this and we should be doing this. It's good for us too. We can get caught up in the day to day hassles of running the business and not see the bigger picture. And on a purely business level, through the networking that IEATS provides us, we have gained new customers and identified new needs which need to be serviced."
Highland's education director, Bruce Robertson, sees the IEATS programme also as tying into the McCrone recommendations for professional development.
"McCrone argues for different kinds of staff development opportunities which IEATS placements fit into. But as the programme gains in popularity, it will be difficult for us to maintain cover. Supply is a cloud on the horizon. I also feel that to capitalise on it properly, it would need to be extended beyond March 2002. We are looking for a signal from the Scottish Executive that this will happen."