Training scheme under scrutiny

7th January 2000 at 00:00
The Lottery-funded initiative must overcomea number of hurdles to succeed. Jack Kenny and Chris Johnston investigate.

Serious concerns are being voiced about the pound;230 million Lottery-funded scheme to train all teachers in using computers in the classroom.

Complaints that the scheme is being run to suit local education authorities (LEAs) and large training providers rather than schools and teachers are combined with fears that teachers unfamiliar with technology will have trouble coping with the distance learning model adopted by most providers.

Four training consortia have met with officials from the Lottery's New Opportunities Fund, which is overseeing the initiative, to voice concerns that LEAs are encouraging schools to sign with particular providers. They say the fund has not done enough to stop such practices, claim the fund's financial administration has been poor and accuse it of ignoring warnings about the problems.

Many providers feel that NOFhas underestimated the difficulties of policing the initiative and are anxious that steps are taken so that schools have a wide choice of training options. Otherwise, the large consortia will grab the lion's share. Smaller, specialist providers will be forced out through lack of customers and choice will be reduced.

Under the scheme's rules, LEAs are not allowed to influence schools or make it difficult for them to choose a provider, but many heads are not aware that schools have the right to select the provider they feel best suits their needs. Yet the choice offered by the dozens of providers is bewildering and the unhelpful information supplied by NOF means many are seeking LEA help.

This has encouraged some authorities, such as the City of Bradford, to pressure its schools. Earlier this year Bradford sent a letter to headteachers that "strongly recommended" they choose the RMOpen University's Learning Schools Programme. The majority of Hampshire schools have signed up with Learning Schools and the consortium has already signed up 18,000 teachers and expects to train as many as 100,000 - a quarter of England's teaching force.

Chris Powley, an RM spokesperson, said it was "very much up to schools' senior management teams to decide which provider offers the best training to meet their needs", but added that the consortium believed the most successful training would be delivered in partnership with LEAs.

Sally Haythornwaite, NOF's senior spokesperson, confirmed that LEAs could not decide which provider a school should use and said action had been taken about the Bradford case. She said the fund was taking every opportunity to tell schools and teachers they had the right to choose their providers.

Nevertheless, an IT consultant who asked not to be named told Oline that few heads realised this, believing the LEA had an advisory role. She added that even if heads knew their rights, most were unlikely to go against LEA recommendations.

However, the IT consultant said that in one London LEA, the official who decided whether schools were ready for training was also promoting the authority's "preferred" training provider, which was giving the LEA pound;112 per teacher. These funds allow the authority to hire more advisory staff.

Gillian Watson, communications officer with the Teacher Training Agency, which is advising NOF, admitted that in some cases LEA advice "might be a little bit too strong".

Complaints also have been circulating about some LEAs that are also providers. One example is the SWIFT consortium that involves 13 LEAs in south-west England, including Somerset and Plymouth.

NOF guidelines state that authorities in this situation "will take steps to ensure that a conflict of interest between this role and the authority's role in administering funding does not arise".

However, Lynne Walker, director of the University of the West of England's ICT Learning Path programme said some of these divisions - so-called Chinese walls - were bound to be "a bit leaky".

She said the NOF scheme was complicated to understand and many teachers did not have time to read the 136-page folder. Walker hoped the revised folder, which lists new providers approved in the second round, would be simpler and help ensure a "level playing field" for all providers.

NOF's Haythornwaite stressed that the three-year programme was still in its infancy and urged anyone with complaints about the actions of training providers or LEAs to contact the fund.

The Teacher Training Agency has begun an inspection process to assure the quality of training and Office for Standards in Education inspectors will evaluate the initiative as part of a long-term assessment of the National Grid for Learning for the Department for Education and Employment.

In addition, concerns about the structure of the training programme have been expressed. Most providers are offering distance learning-based training, but many teachers, particularly those unfamiliar with computers, want the reassurance of face-to-face contact.

Paul Heinrich, an IT inspector for Portsmouth, said primary and infant schools in particular wanted face-to-face training, but Walker said that was difficult to achieve with the pound;450 per teacher trainers had to work with.

John Lawrence, vice chair of the Association for Science Educators, summed up the fears of many associated with the initiative. "Ihope that this pound;230 million will make a difference. If it doesn't, we will have missed the biggest opportunity for years."

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