When Tesco first ran its Computers into schools promotion nine years ago there was much suspicion in education circles. What was in it for Tesco? That was easy - increased sales and good public relations. Meanwhile, schools were getting much-needed equipment they were not likely to get from other sources. It was hard to find a nefarious angle. In fact, the only bad publicity came when it was revealed that some misguided but well-meaning teachers had been awarding brownie points to the children who brought in the most tokens - affluence rewarded.
When Tesco's SchoolNet 2000 educational project (page 6) was announced last year, the cynics had an even leaner time. Tesco invested in 40 advisory teachers and computer centres at 340 stores across Britain to support schools and families in creating a computerised snapshot of life in the UK at the end of the millennium.
This project is already stacking up in education's largest ever website of children's work, and will be a key feature of the Learn zone at the Millennium Dome in Greenwich. In less than 12 months, SchoolNet 2000, supported by Xemplar, the Ultralab teaching, learning and technology research unit at Anglia Polytechnic University, and Intuitive Media, has attracted 40,000 pupils and 14,000 teachers in 13,500 schools.
Although this was not its intention, SchoolNet 2000 is already the most successful training project in information and communications technology (ICT) for UK teachers. They have been involved in something that has naturally developed their ICT skills for a real purpose, helping their students achieve their goals and to show those achievements to the whole world on the Web.
SCHOOLNET 2000 sharply contrasts with the profile of the Government's ambitious plan to help Britain's UK's 400,000 teachers become proficient in ICT by 2002. Some pound;230 million of National Lottery cash is available for the training scheme, which is being supervised by the New Opportunity Fund (NOF) and the Teacher Training Agency (TTA).
In January the TTA insisted that its pound;1 million training analysis was on course, despite evidence to the contrary. The planned CD-Rom was delayed and the paper materials are flawed (page 10).
The TTA was confident that there would be at least 200 training organisations on board. Only 158 consortiums put in a bid. Of those approved, there are 32 for England, nine for Scotland, five for Wales and two for Ireland. There are doubts that this will be enough and a second round of bids should have been dealt with by November.
Frankie Sulke of the TTA also said: "The choice will be up to schools. We will not allow a massive consortium to wipe up the market." Anecdotal evidence, however, indicates that education supplier RM will pick up a large slice of the action. Although there are mutterings of "monopoly", most informed observers are happy that, despite a woeful lack of competition, there is at least one firm with the experience and capacity to play an important role.
In addition, the TTA assured that it would "require providers to have internal quality assurance mechanisms in place", that teachers would evaluate the providers and that negotiations with the Office for Standards in Education about their role in the training were being conducted. The training starts this month, but we are none the wiser - there is no convincing element of quality control in this pound;230 million project.
Accreditation does not appear to be a major concern of the TTA either, even though there are existing schemes, such as the European Computer Driving Licence, which are motivating and valuable for participants. For example, they can be recognised for future job applications.
No one doubts the immensity of the TTA's task, nor that it can be achieved, but there is a wide lack of confidence in the capabilities of the TTA itself, and the politicians should pay special attention to this scheme in the upcoming review of the agency. Maybe they should talk to Tesco and Ultralab.
Last month's Budget included some intriguing announcements of extra cash for ICT, including a pound;20 million scheme to help teachers buy laptops (page 4). A month later it is disappointing to find little extra detail, even though teacher ownership of computers has long been accepted as a prerequisite for successful ICT in schools. The Isle of Man sorted this one out years ago (pages 20-21) and there are independent schemes such as Microsoft's Anytime Anywhere Learning program (pages 30-31), so the Government's lack of imagination is sad.
Perhaps, after such an impressive start, the Government's tendency to re-announce funding under other guises and announce vote-winning ventures lacking in detail, is an indication that the politicians are losing their grip. For the sake of the pound;230 million training funds let's hope not.