The Cannock experience
With 1,750 pupils, Cannock Chase High is a big school. The science department, with 16 teachers and four technicians, is able to have its own science ICT co-ordinator in the person of Mina Patel, a teacher of four years' experience whose enthusiasm leaps out of everything she says and does.
She and her colleagues decided to choose for their training a single subject provider - the Science Consortium (Association for Science Education, Sheffield Hallam University, New Media, Nuffield Curriculum Trust) and to tackle it together, supporting each other. "We chose them because we saw that the modules are very science based - subject specific," says Patel.
She and her colleagues also like the Science Consortium model whereby there are "teacher facilitators" - teachers in the department who have a day's face-to-face training and then work to lead and support colleagues on the training tasks provided on the Web.
Experience in many schools shows that NOF training can falter when there are system problems - hardware not up to the job, Web access slow or uncertain. Nothing will turn off an already doubtful teacher more quickly than having to struggle with the kit. One of the keys to progress at Cannock Chase, therefore, was Patel's determination, together with that of her fellow facilitator Dr Mike Follows, to protect staff from system problems. Early on, for example, Patel realised that, although her department, and the school in general, is well equipped with computers, they did not have a sufficiently recent Web browser - necessary because the core of the Science Consortium's training is a series of lessons that are downloaded from their website.
"We didn't have Explorer 5 at first," she says. "Now that could have stopped us - we could have put off the training till we had it. Instead, Mike and I downloaded the lessons at home in the evening then brought them in."
She has taken this determination to great lengths. "For example," she says, "If I knew a teacher was going to be doing a lesson on modelling, I'd come up to the lab first thing, log on, and make sure everything was going to work. I wanted the teacher to say, 'This is easy, I can do this again', I've gone out of my way to make it a positive experience. I've not allowed anything to go wrong."
The aim, all the time, has been to keep up the pace. So although theoretically the training can be done over a period of two years, the feeling at Cannock Chase was that to space the training out was to risk a lack of continuity and enthusiasm. "We both agreed it was important to do it quickly," says Dr Follows. "It's the intensity that grabs people, rather than doing it in dribs and drabs - and as facilitators we have a btter handle on how people are progressing."
NOF training is about ICT having an effect on teaching and learning. It's still too early to make judgements about test and exam results, but the teachers are in no doubt about the way the quality and variety of their own work and the level of interest of their pupils have improved. It's not just ICT novices who gain, either. Bruce Fletcher, an assistant head of the school who teaches in the science department, came to the training already experienced in using ICT in environmental science.
"The creative student-centred approach of the A-level in this subject is fertile ground for ICT," he explains. "We can do A-level projects that 15 years ago couldn't have been done at university level. The technology allows you to record changes in the environment, gather data and present it, and all with equipment costing a few hundred pounds."
Even though he was starting well up the learning curve, Fletcher is still keen to say how much he had gained from the training. "It endorses what you are doing already, and it allows you to fill gaps," he says. "So although I was strong in some areas, I was weak in others. For example, when I started with modelling software it was a revelation. I probably wouldn't have had the confidence to try those applications if I hadn't been carried to that point by the training."
Gill Bannister, by contrast, is prepared to admit that she is an example of the kind of teacher who might have felt resistant to the training. Already retired, she is back at the school on a part-time basis. "I can see that colleagues in a similar position might want to avoid ICT," she says. "But I had an Apple Mac at home, and it was the enjoyment I had from that which made me willing to take the training on board."
Specialising in special education needs, she is intrigued by the way that ICT can help teachers to address pupils with different learning styles. "I believe there are two types of learner," she continues. "Think of going into a garden. One person will walk round picking up bits here and there. Another will stay in one place and concentrate on it. A teacher is likely to use a style that favours one or the other, but the computer can address both, which makes it a tremendous tool."
There's no doubt that this is a happy department - the atmosphere at break, with everyone enjoying goodies prepared by Patel, and someone else trying to arrange a bowling and curry evening attests to that. It says a great deal both for her, and for her colleagues, that they have run with the boundless enthusiasm of someone who, though relatively inexperienced compared with many in the department, has a very clear vision of what ICT can do for science teachers.
"I saw the potential when I was at Wolverhampton University," she says. "I developed this passion for the way that ICT can help pupils to achieve. I would love to promote it more widely and make other teachers aware of the benefits of ICT."
Gerald Haigh is a freelance writer and former headteacher