'To create a skilled workforce, the people need to understand the technology';Profile;Interview;Richard Pietrasik

10th September 1999 at 01:00
Who better to push SCET's creed of IT in education than a former programmer and teacher? Chris Johnston meets Richard Pietrasik

You couldn't blame Richard Pietrasik for not knowing the way from his office down to the ground-floor computer suite where the photographer was waiting to take his picture. It's not just that he was relatively new to the job, but the building housing the Scottish Council for Educational Technology (SCET) is a bit of a rabbit warren.

Sandwiched between a primary and secondary school in Glasgow's West End, it began life as a Roman Catholic convent and later became a teachers' training college before SCET took over in 1979, six years after it was set up.

Pietrasik is now responsible for charting the organisation's course through what could well prove tricky waters. Perhaps it's just as well there are some challenges on the horizon, or he might get a little bored. Pietrasik praises the job done by his predecessor, Nigel Paine, in the nine years he was chief executive before leaving to head the Technology Colleges Trust in London, and says he left the council in a very good position (SCET's turnover will be more than pound;5 million for the first time this year, up 33 per cent on 1998). Having much sympathy for Paine's views on most issues, he says the transition has been comfortable.

Pietrasik insists that he is not out to make his mark on SCET: "Looking to put your stamp on an organisation is the wrong way to go about it - that happens naturally if you do your job reasonably well." Nevertheless, his background is quite different to Paine's, making it likely that he will approach the task from a different angle. While his predecessor's career was mainly in adult education, Pietrasik was head of maths and then deputy head of Hampstead School in London before becoming head of Deans Community High in Livingston, between Edinburgh and Glasgow, in 1991. However, he started his career as a computer programmer and was responsible for installing a computerised administration system for Camden LEA in London and its schools after its formation in 1989.

It was the two years spent on secondment from Deans successfully running the Creatis project - Creating the Learning Society - in West Lothian that brought Pietrasik to SCET's attention and helped him win the job. He says he has much to learn about how SCET operates and the role it plays in supporting information and communications technology (ICT) in education.

Unlike the British Educational Communications and Technology Agency, its southern counterpart, SCET derives only 25 per cent of its income from government and earns the rest through consultancies, training and software. Upsetting the cashflow is about the only concern he has about the expected merger between his organisation and the Scottish Consultative Council on the Curriculum. However, Pietrasik says the Scottish Office is aware of the issue and the need to ensure both bodies are left in a good position. He seems confident that both bodies will continue to carry out the same roles. "There's a logic to bringing together the body that is responsible for giving advice on curriculum with the body primarily responsible for driving changes with regard to ICT. It's a circular relationship - one doesn't dominate the other - and the needs of education are the important deciding factor."

His faith in SCET's continuing existence in one form or another is probably well placed. Education is one of the new Scottish Parliament's main areas of responsibility and Pietrasik says its members will want to ensure that Scotland stays ahead of the game in educational ICT: "Scotland has something of a reputation for being a new technology centre in Europe and the parliament will be looking to develop the infrastructure to encourage future development."

He points out that a technology consultancy firm chose Livingston as its European base because Scotland is a net exporter of graduates. "To create a skilled workforce, the people need to understand the technology, so ICT in education will become very, very prominent in Scotland."

You might expect the head of SCET to say there is no doubt that technology can enhance learning throughout life, but Pietrasik concedes that this may not have been demonstrated to all in the education field. Even so, he says it cannot be ignored: "The technological developments taking place are going to have the most tremendous impact on our lives and are going to benefit education no end."

Many teachers still do not know how to use a computer, but he hopes the Lottery-funded ICT training programme (which SCET is participating in along with the Open University and RM in the Learning Schools Programme) will change that situation. However, that will not be enough to bring about a sea change in education. In Pietrasik's opinion, every teacher needs his or her own machine and, to this end, plans are afoot to provide them with low-cost computers.

Access to computers for students and the general public is also a crucial issue. He explains that the Creatis project ensured terminals were installed in libraries, community centres and other public venues as well as schools, so teachers could ask pupils to research a topic on the Internet over the weekend knowing that even those without a PC at home would have some sort of access.

Pietrasik is confident that these concerns will be much less pressing in 10 years time, or perhaps even sooner, as the majority of children will come to school with a laptop or some other portable device in much the same way as every pupil has a calculator today. It is inevitable the way education is delivered will change, for example documents on a school's intranet could make textbooks obsolete.

He says the role of the teacher will change as well, but become more rather than less important. But his fear is that many teachers misguidedly believe ICT is akin to having a television in the classroom. "I don't think they understand the profound effect it will have on the way people learn. They have to understand the depths of the changes taking place and have control of them. A lot of them think you can take it or leave it, but I think they will be fired with enthusiasm when they realise the potential."

The brave new world ahead virtually assures the survival of an organisation like SCET, and its new chief executive is adamant that its commercial activities will not be permitted to affect its original task. "SCET very jealously guards its position of being seen as patently honest and truthful in terms of the advice it gives. That must be its role and it would be disastrous if it loses that."

Pietrasik may have to keep his eye on several balls at once, but it seems the ICT needs of Scottish schools will be well looked after for while he is at the helm of SCET.

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