Wanted: IT gurus for classroom inspiration

18th October 1996 at 01:00
We need to find the right people to instil computer confidence in teachers, argues Heather Du Quesnay. Jack Kenny reports

Heather Du Quesnay, who was appointed to chair the National Council for Educational Technology (NCET) earlier this year, must now be one of the most influential people in English education. In addition to her work with the NCET, she is also president of the Society of Education Officers, a council member of the School Curriculum and Assessment Authority (SCAA) and the executive director of education for Lambeth and Brixton. In the past she has worked in Cambridgeshire, Essex and Hertfordshire; in each authority she carried out some radical re-organisation. Many who look at the NCET budget say that there must be a better way of spending the money that is allocated for IT. Unsurprisingly, she demurs.

The basic budget for the whole organisation is just Pounds 5 million, she says, although "the NCET does engage in other activities which are income earning and that does enable it to extend its influence". The NCET raises the profile of educational technology, gives it a focus and enables the planning of a national strategy, she adds.

Not that it is perfect. "I do not believe that the NCET, as a small organisation based in Coventry, can be the sole source of support, guidance and advice on matters of IT for every teacher in this country," she says. "And I accept the criticism that the NCET has been too inward-looking, too involved with the technology. Involving the other learning communities will be a way round that.

"Of course there are shortcomings. We are at a critical stage. But the NCET has been doing a good job given the terms of reference within which it has beenoperating."

In any case, the priority now is not to rake over the past but to look to the future. "We are now at a point where we need a very significant change of pace and impact if we are going to serve the teachers and children of this country well, and that does imply the need for significant changes. The recent efficiency review report, which was an internal Department for Education and Employment exercise, will play a part in that. It has raised some significant questions about how we use our time, and how we plan strategically."

Mrs Du Quesnay says that she expects the council to give more of a lead to the work of the NCET, with council members getting more involved.

A priority is to draw up a new three-year strategy that is clear about the NCET's overall purpose. Part of that strategy will be to develop relationships with other national agencies, such as the Teacher Training Agency, local IT support organisations, LEAs and the private sector. "I expect to see a review of some of the things that we have traditionally done to make sure that we are the best people to do it and that we're doing it in the most appropriate way," says Mrs Du Quesnay. "I am not sure that we are clear enough about the extent to which some kinds of work have to be done by the NCET or whether there are other organisations, perhaps locally, who could do that work better.

"There are some very skilled staff people who know their way around the technology very well. Where we are having difficulties is in making the skills and the knowledge of those people available to the generality of teachers in schools in a way that teachers find accessible. I am not sure that we have got the interface with schools generally right."

Mrs Du Quesnay sees her aim as increasing the effectiveness of the NCET without necessarily increasing its size. "I don't believe in large bureaucracies trying to control what is going on in schools and trying to do everythingthemselves."

She sees a big role for education authorities: "There is a view around that LEAs are not able to offer all the resources and support that they did in the past and that is undoubtedly true in some parts of the country. But there is still, as I know from experience, an enormous amount of work going on in LEAs and they are still a major route for getting in touch with the generality of teachers.."

As a relative newcomer to the world of educational technology, she appreciates the level of the expertise and commitment of IT practitioners but feels that they do not always relate well to non-experts. "We have to remember that there are many teachers who find IT complex, difficult to use."

Mrs Du Quesnay recognises that teachers have faced enormous demands over the last five years implementing the national curriculum, and that many find it really hard to set aside the time it takes to familiarise themselves with the hardware and the software so that they have the confidence to use it with children in the classroom. "There are not enough people in the IT community who can build confidence in the average teachers."

This is worrying, she believes, because over the next 20 years IT will change the whole shape of learning. She argues that in any review of the curriculum we need to take a wider view of what constitutes excellence and standards in the light of the IT revolution: "The situation has not been helped by the polarised political situation where anything that has not been part of traditional academic values has tended to be dismissed as being sloppy, lackadaisical and a lowering of standards.

"I am all for rigour: I want children to read and spell. But this technology does mean that we have to redefine what we mean by standards, rigour and excellence. It is perfectly possible to use IT to write imaginatively, to write with style, analytically - probably even more possible."

How will she judge the effectiveness of her three-year term? "There is only one way I will measure success: whether we increase significantly the number of teachers using IT in their work in the classroom.

"We need to find ways of monitoring the use of IT by teachers, and we need better IT training programs in initial teacher-training and in continuing professional development - with accreditation if possible. I would like to see us making some impact on investment strategy to help schools think through how they are going to stay up to date with their base of equipment, given that the public purse is not going to be able to fund all of the hardware and software that schools need. The job is so pressured and it's getting harder by the minute. We must find ways of making the routine job easier."

Heather Du Quesnay's record suggests that she will make quite an impact at the NCET. She is well respected, well positioned in the educational hierarchy and clearly knows the right buttons to click. Hopes are high that, under her direction, the NCET will find better ways of releasing the power of the learning technologies to transform the work in schools.

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