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Guidance that really makes a difference

Nicola Jones considers the wide range of commercial help tailored to teachers' needs.

Selling computer hardware and software to schools can't be an easy business. Time and money are scarce in schools and most teachers still don't use computers at all. statistics from the Department for Education and Employment show that two-thirds of secondary teachers and half of primary teachers are still not using computers in their work. The situation has existed more or less unchanged for the last six years.

Yet computers have become faster and easier to use, and there is a wealth of educational software available now for all the most popular kinds of computers in schools. Getting schools and teachers to use computers has become a priority for hardware and software companies - and many are now offering support and guidance that is helpful to schools.

Key Solutions, a division of Research Machines, produces a portfolio of software for management and administration. Each module comes with full training, although the modules are designed to be as simple as possible, to avoid the need for too much input.

RM also offers training vouchers under its Window Box partnership scheme for primary schools. The Window Box is a complete, ready-to-use system, with its own suite of software appropriate for a range of age groups (depending on which version of the Window Box you buy). It has a primary management system, which can be customised and managed by the teacher.

When a primary school buys its first Window Box, there is a voucher for free training with a local Window Box partner. For every subsequent Window box bought by the school there is a Pounds 25 discount on further training. The Window Box partnership has over 100 partners around the country, of which 94 are local authority information technology support centres. The training offered will generally cover an overview of what is available in the Window Box in terms of software, coupled with instructions on how to customise the set-up to suit individual classes and children. Window Box partners meet RM once a term to ensure that they are kept up to date on all developments.

Xemplar, the new company formed as a joint venture between Acorn and Apple, is adopting an approach centred on supporting IT across the curriculum and its new catalogue reflects this approach. Primary school solutions includes a Junior toolbox for RISC OS which includes classroom support packs from major publishers. Purchasing schools are given a training voucher worth Pounds 50, which can be redeemed against any course at a training provider registered under the QITT scheme. This has been established by the National Council for Educational Technology (NCET), the British Education Suppliers Association (BESA) and National Association of Advisers for Computers in Education (NAACE). It commits its members to a code of practice that aims to promote quality, effectiveness and value for money in IT training.

In the secondary sector, Xemplar's Curriculum toolbox Solutions are focused on five areas of the national curriculum: design and technology, maths, geography, English and science. As well as the hardware and software, toolboxes contain curriculum material, teacher worksheets, training and support. At present, there is also a training voucher scheme available for the Geography Toolbox pack, developed in conjunction with Anglia Multimedia Development. Training and services will be developed to support the Solutions approach and will be offered through training centres approved by Xemplar and may include the introduction of distance learning materials.

Xemplar's approach is exciting, since it seems to be driven by the needs of the curriculum, and it is rooted in classroom learning objectives. This is the best way to motivate teachers to use IT in the classroom, as long as the courses and activities support teachers in developing the IT skills they need. Training is also offered through Insight, Xemplar's approved centre inCambridge.

Courses at Insight are generally focused on developing skills in using software and maintaining hardware, although those featured in next year's programme also include a creative multimedia course, as well as courses of a more technical nature. Some of the courses offered by Insight are sold to include the price of the software used during the course. There is also the one-day Pocket Book Explorer course which, at Pounds 325, includes the price of the popular top-of-the-range Pocket Book II hand-held computer.

Anglia Multimedia, well-known for its Key range of software, has launched a novel new professional development scheme which is breaking new ground in its approach. A team of advisers and advisory teachers has developed six one-day in-service training courses built around Anglia Multimedia software and related to its use in the curriculum. Selected centres, registered under the QITT scheme, are then invited to deliver the courses for Anglia. Each course price includes both materials and the software it is based on is offered at a discount for teachers to take away with them.

Anglia's first courses will be offered this autumn. There are four primary and two secondary titles on offer, including "Using CD-Roms effectively in the primary classroom" and "Using CD-Roms to teach secondary history". Peter Stibbons, Anglia Multimedia's development director, says: "The professional development scheme provides teachers with a unique opportunity to learn, use and discuss educational software in a practical, curriculum-led course. The best people to run these courses are local advisory centres and the scheme is also about supporting these centres to provide value to the schools they service."

As the scheme develops, training centres will be able to offer their own ideas for courses. This scheme could lead to a genuine partnership being developed between local training providers and Anglia Multimedia. This appears to be an excellent idea, benefiting teachers and schools as well as training providers while, presumably, boosting sales of Anglia's products. It seems to be the kind of scheme that keeps everyone happy.

TAG Developments, a company that produces and develops its own software as well as selling other titles, has a training team with teaching experience. They often work in schools alongside teachers in the classroom during training, and they offer a 10-day primary IT course under Grants for Education and Support Training (GEST) funding where teachers can choose which modules they want to attend throughout the year. They have also been involved in developing support materials for the Encarta encyclopedia and software byBr?derbond.

Many smaller independent companies and consultants offer an innovative approach and are good value for money. There are several around nowadays, generally formed by former advisory teachers, and their input can be extremely valuable as it is based on a good knowledge of the classroom, as well as a high level of technical expertise. If you are worried about the quality of a training company or individual, check if they are registered under the QITT register.

My own company, Face to Interface, is registered under this scheme and offers a range of courses which are both skills- and curriculum- based. Where specialised software is being used, it is very important to be trained by people with an implicit understanding of how it should be used with children. At the very best, they may have even written it themselves.

Widgit software, producer of Writing with Symbols for children and adults with learning disabilities, offers training in how to support children with special needs to assist communication and develop language and literacy skills.

Companies are now adapting their marketing strategies to the needs of teachers and schools and training is beginning to be seen as an important part of this process. The general shift tends to be for hardware and software companies to offer support to smaller training providers, many of whom have been training teachers at a local level for years.

Partnerships are now developing which should ultimately benefit everyone. However, time will still be a constraint when it comes to training. Hands up that sales representative who wants to take my class.

* Xemplar: 01223 724 200 TAG: 01474 357 350 Insight: 01223 812927 Widgit: 01926 885303 Anglia Multimedia: 01603 615 151 Face to Interface Ltd:0171 833 3193 Key Solutions: 0181 460 9766.

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