No room at the front for technophobes

10th October 1997 at 01:00
From next September, students starting teacher-training will have a new subject to learn as part of their qualification: information technology. The 19989 academic year will see every student teacher - regardless of subject specialism or age range - required to demonstrate a minimum level of competence in technology before qualifying. The move is an acknowledgement of the role IT can play in teaching and learning.

It is also a recognition that eight years after Dame Janet Trotter's report to the then Department of Education and Science that many teachers lacked confidence and competence in IT, the situation is largely unchanged.A survey carried out by the the Teacher Training Agency has confirmed this.Frankie Sulke, the agency's head of training, says: "Although there have been some areas of improvement, the survey suggests that there is still a lot to be done."

The agency has been asked to define the level of competence required by newly qualified teachers. Ms Sulke says this will be equivalent to level 8 in the national curriculum, which includes the ability to handle information and use a range of equipment. But more importantly, says Ms Sulke, it also means understanding the contribution technology can make to a teacher's specialist subject: "This includes the teacher working with five and six-year-ol ds, some of whom may have a computer at home. It's about understanding how they can harness the potential of that to help pupils learn better. "

The agency does not want to make teachers use technology simply because it's a good thing, adds Ms Sulke: "It's about saying IT can and does make teaching and learning more effective and that you want to teach new teachers how to do it."

Ms Sulke is delighted that the Government has recognised that the requirements as they stand are too general: "People are not clear about what's expected of them. To use a proxy like level 8 is not going to provide sufficient support to help trainees or those training them. We don't think it goes far enough. It's the second part of the strand that's important, which is about understanding how to use IT to teach their subject effectively. Having teachers who know when to use IT and when not to is important. We need to be more specific about the IT knowledge, understanding and skills students must have before they get their QTS [Qualified Teacher Status]. "

As a result, the agency is consulting widely both inside and outside the educational world: "We've asked people to let us know what they think should be in the curriculum and we'd be delighted to hear the views of anyone in education," says Ms Sulke. Those involved in the consultations include serving teachers, the Schools Curriculum and Assessment Association, the Office for Standards in Education and the National Council for Educational Technology.

The agency is providing about #163;2 million specifically to help those who will be training the teachers prepare for the new demands. It is also running workshops and conferences: "Providers also means schools as well as higher education institutions. Student teachers spend two-thirds of their time in school so it's absolutely crucial that school teachers train and assess their students in IT too." All this suggests a need for new resources, such as sufficient hardware and software or enough time in the school day for assessment: "While we're setting a high standard with our ITT [initial teacher-training] course; we understand that it has to be practical, practicable and deliverable," says Ms Sulke.

Two million pounds sounds impressive, but spread it across the thousands of schools, colleges and higher education institutions that will train teachers in IT, and it doesn't amount to much: "Remember this is only the money earmarked specifically for IT," says Ms Sulke. "We're also providing #163;1,750,000 as a general resource for gearing up to new requirements, which training providers can spend on IT if they wish. Some may want to spend money on hardware, software or on getting the trainers up to speed. Others may wish to improve their networks or communications."

Research by the TTA suggests that there is a large amount of hardware and software in schools and colleges already, says Ms Sulke. "But what's happening is that teachers are not being taught systematically how to use it in order to make their teaching more effective. What's more, training tends to be done in isolation, so that a student has a session on developing their IT capability, but then doesn't go on to the crucial bit on how they use it in the classroom. Our evidence is that existing resources need to be used more effectively."

What about the idea of tax breaks or other incentives to encourage student teachers to buy their own computers? "We need to do whatever we can in order to allow teachers to have the personal access to computers - that actually makes the difference," says Ms Sulke. "All our evidence shows that where teachers do have a sustained, personal access to computers, they develop in leaps and bounds."

Frankie Sulke would like to see students using technology more in their training: "When you have got a system of training that relies heavily on partnership, there is the potential for IT to make that easier with e-mail and video-conferencing and other facilities as part of the student's training. " The TTA has provided #163;50,000 to a project involving BT and Southampton University. Campus Tutor enables tutors to keep in touch with students via e-mail, video-conferencing and the Internet. The new IT requirements teachers will be published in January. The signs are that tomorrow's teachers will be better equipped to use technology in the classroom.

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