Written off by some as a disaster before it has even begun, the New Opportunities Fund's pound;230 million training initiative to make every teacher computer literate is one of the most ambitious undertaken in this country. Worth roughly pound;450 for every teacher, it will happen despite the negative comments from some quarters. So it is time for schools to prepare.
The New Opportunities Fund wants information and communications technology to be used as an educational tool that enhances teaching, class management and the planning of lessons, as well as a means of sharing ideas among teachers and cutting paperwork. To this end, schools can turn to one or more of the training agencies approved by the Fund. The trainers include universities, computer suppliers and local education authorities, as well as organisations with specialist interests, such as the Historical Association.
Some will deliver combinations of online or remote learning. Others are looking at school-based, face-to-face tuition, as well as traditional paper-based training.
Emily Williamson, at the New Opportunities Fund, said the aim is to build as much flexibility and time as possible into what is available, so that schools are not deprived in their choice by the skills mix they have on their staff or by what hardware they have.
Schools will be given a training entitlement for each teacher and will be able to organise training according to individuals' needs and their school development plan. The courses for primary schools will cover the core subjects of maths, English and science, while secondaries have the option of specialist training.
The Fund is about to distribute a detailed guide on how schools should assess their needs, the various training options, as well as how to apply for the money. Schools will send their bids to their local education authorities, which hold the training budget. To get the money, they must first submit details of their development plan for information and comunications technology and draw up a training schedule. The authorities will judge which bids should be approved.
In contrast to the money from the Standards Fund for buying hardware (known conversationally as National Grid money), which had to be spent quickly, schools have until mid 2002 to use their training entitlement. This, as Ms Williamson explains, is to ensure that schools only take up the training when they are ready.
"We don't want to rush schools into making decisions. There's no point in them bidding for training funds if they do not have the equipment in place first. This gives them a chance to sort out their hardware strategy before committing to a programme of training."
There is a catch. Supply teacher costs will not be met by the Fund, so schools will either have to find the money for this so that staff can have time off for training, or build the training into the timetable.
Though the fund has said that "most training (will be) provided through school-based learning involving the use of ICT in the classroom", there is a question over just how practical this will be in terms of time and budgetary constraints. Unless teachers are willing and able to train in their own time, during free periods, breaks or after school, many schools are likely to require supply teachers, significantly adding to the overall cost.
Given that resources have tended to follow those authorities and schools with a good technology track record, this could be a recipe for compounding inequalities. Steve Power, head of IT support for Barking in north-east London, says: "Where there is no senior management support, where there has been little spent on IT and where it is seen as a low priority, little will happen. There is a lot of over-optimism out there."
He also fears that many schools will fail to make best use of the training because of uncertainty as to how it fits in with theirdevelopment plans.
Staff motivation is another important issue, he says. "My concern is that we are actually trying to take this to teachers who have largely ignored IT training in the past. And we are asking them to train in their own time.
"To people who don't have any particular access to hardware or any interest in IT, it's a big commitment. Someone will have to do a really good motivation job or we'll be wasting our time."
Dorothy Cassells, marketing manager for the Learning Schools Programme at RM, a market leader in schools computing, believes that sound planning is central to overcoming these obstacles. "Co-ordination and organisation is critical to the success of training," she says. "We are designing programme management materials to help school heads explain to their teachers what the benefits are and what they are trying to achieve - to raise awareness and get people on board."
Ms Cassells says that press coverage concentrating on the numbers of teachers lacking computer experience has confused the issue: she is clear that this training is not for beginners. "There's already a strategy in place for basic skills - you can go to your local authority for that. But there has not before been a strategy to take existing teachers and train them in what the educational possibilities of ICT are."
She believes it is the flexibility of the training available that will make the big difference for schools. "If you're head of a primary school, you may want to join with other primaries in the area and arrange training as a group. If in a large secondary, you may want to phase it over several terms. For secondaries, it might also be sensible to train the specialists, the maths and science teachers, first of all and create a base from which to develop."
However, despite these words, there is still a great deal of uncertainty over how the training is actually going to be delivered. Even many of those promoting the initiative appear to accept that only time will break down the cynicism and confusion in some quarters.
But Ms Cassells is convinced it will work. "My feeling is that, over time, teachers will see their colleagues getting excited about it and they will see how IT can be used. That will reduce their fear and increase their curiosity.
"As long as schools realise there are a whole host of starting points, and as long as there's flexibility to accommodate this, we should be able to cater for different teachers' needs. I think it will succeed."