Who teaches the teachers? Never has this question been more pertinent than when it comes to the issue of providing training in information and communications technology (ICT) for the UK's teaching force. When the Government announced the National Grid For Learning (NGFL) in 1997 it also gave notice that it intended to offer ICT training for the UK's 400,000 teachers, funded by pound;230 million from the New Opportunity Fund (NOF). In just under two years' time, the programme will be complete. Many other European countries including France, Germany, Denmark, Sweden and the Netherlands have launched their own versions of the NGFL, but none has attempted such an ambitious programme.
For this reason, the Government deserves credit, but the launch of the NOF training programme has raised new issues and challenges for Government, LEAs, schools and teachers. According to NOF's figures, more than 250,000 teachers have now signed up for ICT training, with more than 100,000 completing a training course. But NOF admits that the take-up for training has been "patchy." A NOF spokeswoman said there were several reasons for this: "Sometimes the message has not got across; in other cases, the LEAs have not been proactive. But sometimes there are competing issues like libraries." NOF training covers five main areas - learning, teaching, assisting pupils' learning, evaluating your teaching and professional development, but some schools have seen it as simply a means of providing their teachers with basic ICT skills, says one NOF training provider.
Some schools have done their own in-house training. Duncanrig school in south Lanarkshire is one of them. ICT co-ordinator Gordon Cameron has been responsible for running the training programme: "We haven't launched NOF training yet as I have not been happy with the materials and I know other teachers have been disappointed," he says.
But it is not all bad news. The NOF training provider Learning Schools Programme (LSP), run by RM and the Open University, has signed up 100,000 teachers from 6,700 schools. Chris Powley, LSP's general manager, says:
"The feedback we've had from teachers who have taken the course is encouraging. Seventy-four per cent of them found the training very useful or useful in raising confidence in using ICT in their teaching - only nine per cent felt it wasn't at all useful. Senior school managers are reporting that up to 90 per cent of teachers are developing action plans for continuing professional development beyond NOF ICT training."
But how effective is the training? Owen Lynch, chief executive of the British Educational Communications Technology Agency (Becta) says: "We need to find out what difference the training is making to teaching and learning in the classroom." Some believe it could be several years before any noticeable impact is seen throughout education.
Some are concerned that thousands of teachers are being enthused by their ICT training but frustrated once they return to school because the school lacks the resources to support them, or school management does not encourage ICT use in the classroom. Mike Baughen, chief executive of Learning and Teaching Scotland, says: "NOF presents us with a superb opportunity to provide people with ICT skills, but a key point is the support they get from headteachers back in the school." Chris Powley points out: "ICT training increases the demands for ICT reources and this is a challenge for senior management."
There is a well-known saying: "If you don't use it, you lose it." And if teachers do not have easy access to ICT, they may lose the confidence or motivation to use it in the classroom. That is why many believe it is crucial for teachers to have their own PCs. The DFEE's Computers for Teachers scheme has helped thousands of teachers own a computer, but there is frustration that it does not reach enough teachers. The decision to restrict the scheme this year to maths teachers at key stage 3 caused widespread disappointment, but the good news is that the Government seems to have listened. It now plans to spend an extra pound;50 million over the next three years on laptops for teachers and has set up a consultation exercise (www.cft.ngfl.gov.ukconsultationindex.html) to find the best method of distributing computers.
In the Netherlands, the government gave schools the ICT money to spend as they wanted, and John Walton, deputy head of Monk's Walk school in Welwyn Garden City, says a similar procedure should have been used for the Computers for Teachers scheme: "The money would have been better spent if it had been given to the schools to spend on laptops for teachers." Monk's Walk has launched its own laptops for teachers scheme. It has brokered a three-year leasing agreement with its regular PC supplier for the supply of laptops to its 70 teaching staff. Under the agreement, the school owns the PCs and covers the insurance, but the teachers use the computers as their own. In March, Northern Ireland education minister Martin McGuinness announced a pound;13.2 million scheme to provide 6,000 laptops to teachers. Previous schemes had provided additional 6,000 laptops with the result that almost one in two teachers now owns a computer. But the Isle of Man has gone even further and provided all its teachers with laptops (see box story, page 12).
The question many want answering is: what happens after NOF? Even the Government acknowledges that the issue of training will not be over when the last teachers have finished their NOF training. Michael Wills, minister for learning and technology, admits that one of the biggest challenges is that: "We have to continue to look at teacher development." Lord Puttnam, a member of the DFEE's standards task force, says one of the challenges facing a new Government will be to move away from the increasingly irrelevant political imperative to value increases in computer-pupil ratios: "Without high-quality, ongoing support and training for teachers and the development of world-class content, the NGFL can never deliver the service we need. NOF training for teachers was an admirable initiative - but as a one-off it could never go far or deep enough and its quality has been too inconsistent to deliver the skills and confidence teachers need," he says.
So will there be a NOF II? Chris Powley says: "The Government's two-pronged approach of putting resources into classrooms and supporting that by professional development needs to be continued." But the Government's Curriculum online consultation paper hints at a future Government taking more of backseat role and forming partnerships with the private sector. Whatever happens, some form of centrally-funded training programme needs to be available. John Walton says the Government needs to support future training programmes because: "The difficulty in the next phase will be identifying things that need to be followed up or refreshed. People could find themselves in different situations depending on the support they get from their school and local authority."
George Cole is a freelance journalist and a former teacher.