Until now, it's been all talk. But in April a programme begins designed to make every teacher in the country computer literate. Jack Kenny assesses its chances.
The training to make every teacher in the country computer-literate, planned to start in April this year, is probably the largest such initiative ever undertaken in peace time. The country's 400,000 teachers are to be given the skills to operate technology with confidence in the classroom by 2002. It is a massive undertaking.
The low-key approach period has meant that many schools and teachers have not realised the magnitude of what is to happen and have not yet had a chance to slot it into their plans.
The scheme - pound;230 million of National Lottery money is to be spent under the supervision of the Teacher Training Agency (TTA) and the New Opportunities Fund (NOF) - was announced in March but nothing will happen in schools until April. In the interim, officials have been getting and considering bids from 152 consortiums interested in conducting the training. The successful consortiums will be announced next month.
Mary Marsh, head of Holland Park School in west London, is concerned about access to hardware: "What I would really like to do is to give teachers their own computers. That won't happen so we have to ensure that teachers have access through tax breaks, interest-free loans or imaginative equipment loan schemes in school."
Professor Stephen Heppell, of Anglia Polytechnic University's Ultralab research unit, welcomes the initiative but is concerned that the training will give the impression that it will solve all problems: "This is a time of uncertainty and the training has to arm teachers for continuous change, and encourage them to reflect on what they are doing. The training will not be good if it says to them 'Now here are the skills that you can use for years'. The only certainty is uncertainty. I hope that the people responsible for the training are thinking more about what schools will be like in 10 years time."
Success will hinge on the commercial world's ability to deliver much of the training in partnership with the academic. The inability of many in the commercial world to create meaningful alliances has caused concern. Alliances between companies have been formed and dissolved faster than bubbles.
Eileen Devonshire of the British Educational Suppliers Association, says:
"The issues affecting the creation of industry-education partnerships which can deliver quality teacher training programmes can be complex. The exclusion of basic ICT skills as part of any New Opportunities Fund bid for teacher training leaves a gap of both investment and revenue and creates a conundrum for any partnership bid, given the importance applied by the industry to understanding not only when to use ICT in teaching and learning but how.
"For a lot of teachers basic ICT skills training is a requirement before they can benefit from the monies offered under the New Opportunities Fund."
Frankie Sulke of the Teacher Training Agency is unrepentant about the pedagogical focus and is keen that the initiative is put into perspective as a part of the literacy and numeracy strategy. She argues that there is a great deal of misinformation around.
"We are not just driving down the distance learning route - we want a spectrum, different things for different subject areas, some online, some classroom based, some distance learning, some will be traditional. The choice will be up to schools. We will not allow a massive consortium to wipe up the market."
This month schools are being sent materials by the agency to assess who in schools requires what sort of training and how much. "The purpose is to help the teachers and the trainers make the best use of the training that is availableI The total plan is still on time." says Frankie Sulke.
The agency argues that the computer training is part of the drive for teachers to take more responsibility for their professional development. Paradoxically, although teachers will be given individual training assessments, many will have little control over the choice of the trainers who will meet those needs. The school will do that.
Frankie Sulke points out that it is her agency's role to regulate the providers of training. "We require providers to have internal quality assurance mechanisms in place. If they fall short it is up to us to take their approval away and that will happen. There will be evaluations coming in on every provider from teachers. We are negotiating with OFSTED (the Office for Standards in Education) about their role in the training."
Since the decisions on who to book for training will be taken by the schools, what will be the role of the education authorities? There are already persuasive forces at work. At least one provider is promising a fee per teacher to those authorities who book its services for training. Another promises not to target schools in an authority that purchases its teaching materials.
"It will be an absolute requirement that LEAs do not push their own training," says Frankie Sulke at the TTA. "The LEA will not be making a decision about which trainers the school will use. LEAs will assess readiness. They will be paid to do it. Training will be given when the technology is in the school, when the school has an IT development plan. Hardware and training must go together. It is not a big assessment job.
"The LEA will not have control over the purse strings - they will be paid a nominal amount for assessing. There will be a way for schools to appeal if they are unhappy with the LEA. We must emphasise that the money is there; schools do not have to bid. It is there for them when they are ready."
Jack Kenny is a former head of English and ICT adviser who is now a freelance writer. He is chair of English examiners for an examinations board TIMETABLE FOR TRAINING
* January 1999: final assessment of bids from 152 potential consortiums;surveys to assess training needs of staff to be sent to schools * February 1999: New Opportunities Fund and Teacher Training Agency decide on the 152 consortiums to be licensed to conduct training progammes * April 1999: programme begins * April 2002: every teacher should be computer literate
The main concerns about the technology training programme are that:
* the instruction will be spread too thin * teachers under pressure will resent using their own time * trainers will not be able to deliver curriculum-focused training to teachers who lack basic computer literacy * the survey to identify teachers' training needs will be ignored * the training will not be evaluated with rigour by outside agencies * education authorities are being asked to act as gamekeepers and poachers.