A senior executive with one of the best-known computer companies in the country had an urgent request: "Please, can you tell me how we can train teachers on the use of the national curriculum in IT?" You might wonder why his company has suddenly developed such a keen interest in the national curriculum. The answer is, of course, Pounds 230 million.
The New Opportunities Fund (Lottery money) is about to pay for one of the most comprehensive professional development schemes ever attempted for British teachers and librarians. The money will be spent on what Vanessa Potter, the fund's director of policy and external relations, calls "a one-off catch-up" to increase their ICT expertise.
The money, which amounts to Pounds 500 per teacher, has to be spent by 2002. This timescale means that some very detailed preparations have to be made very quickly. Ms Potter is anxious to point out that this is no bonanza for training organisations keen to boost their bank balances by simply pumping out more courses on Microsoft Word and Excel. She insists that potential trainers will have to meet very tight specifications.
One of the first steps will be to assess teachers' needs. A contract for that job has already been awarded to ICL, which is working with Exeter University and the Scottish Council for Educational Technology to devise a self-assessment package for staff.
Training should start early next year, but the curriculum documents from the Teacher Training Agency on which it will be based are already causing controversy. "They are simply too detailed," one leading teacher trainer commented. "They seem as though they were written by someone who finds ICT distasteful. They are intent on fitting ICT into a conventional environment and are primitive even when compared with the national curriculum.
"We should not be training people based on this backward-looking document. The concept of the autonomous learner is not even referred to."
Christina Preston, director of Mirandanet, which promotes teacher training and development, is also concerned: "We have a profession in middle age which is trained in a 20th century teaching model. In the last 20 years, the Government has failed to appreciate what it is asking teachers to do and to support them adequately. Can they do better now? If students are to make the best use of the oceans of information on the Web, they will need to be able to manage their own learning."
The Department for Education and Employment wishes to encourage many different organisations to apply - Ms Potter has been told up to 100 training agencies may be approved.
Others believe so many outside organisations are unlikely to possess the expertise and experience to do the job with any guarantee of quality.
The names of the leading applicants might be prestigious, but some of the contenders have little experience of working with teachers in a curriculum sense.
One prospective applicant said: "I am worried about the involvement of commercial organisations. They have little experience of curriculum training. In the final analysis, they are there to sell their products and I feel that will be the subtext of much of the training."
Others worry about the fate of existing local authority ICT centres that depend on income from training. Others worry that with so many ICT-illiterate teachers, the bulk of the training will just be courses for beginners. How can a teacher use ICT in the curriculum if they cannot even turn a machine on? Groups of advisers and teachers will scutinise the companies applying to do the training. They will have a difficult task sifting through the applications.
Professor Robert McCormick of the Open University is clear on the main training focus. "It's the biggest staff development initiative ever undertaken in the UK, a high-risk strategy that will affect every single teacher. In the past, training was performed in training rooms on machines that were often unlike the ones back in school.
"We will concentrate not on the teacher, but on the school. We will help the school build up its own support. The obligation to get it right will be taken from the teacher and put on the school."
Training and Enterprise Councils have already discovered that some training organisations need to be very closely monitored. In a scheme that has a great deal of money to spend in a very short time, it is important to establish methods to assess the training organisations' efficacy if fraud is to be avoided.
Those leading this project should note the pessimism of key British teacher trainers and act with urgency. This is a once-only opportunity, so it is vital we get it right.
TIMETABLE FOR TRAINING
Sept 1998 - Contract awarded to ICL for needs assessment materials SeptOct - Pre-tendering meetings for prospective training providers JanFeb 1999 - Needs assessmentmaterials to be sent to schools JanFeb 1999 - Administration details to be explained to schools April 1999 - Training begins 2002 - Training completed