The Government's teacher training programme for ICT is starting by giving schools an overview and describing what they are required to do: obtain the training entitlement, choose a provider and spend the entitlement.
There are also explanations of the intended results of the training - funded by the New Opportunities Fund - and forms to request the Identification of Training Needs materials. The procedures vary in Scotland and Northern Ireland - the money there has been delegated to LEAs rather than schools.
The Teacher Training Agency claims that the expensive problems it experienced with producing the CD-Rom for identifying training needs, a pound;1 million project, are over. More money has been spent and the new CD-Rom is expected by mid-June, and the paper booklets appear this month.
These booklets - full of useful information as they are - are overly dense and wordy. The secondary ones for each curriculum area run to over 50 equally dense pages. A lot of space is taken up telling teachers what they need to know, and it is interesting to speculate on how much this will mean to teachers who know little or have had little involvement with ICT - or even fear the technology - and whether it will stimulate them to provide the required feedback. Teachers, instead of seeing one step ahead, may well see the yawning chasm of their ignorance open up before them. To some, the TTA's expectations will seem like an impossible dream.
A survey carried out recently in secondary schools in south Lanarkshire revealed that 35 per cent of teachers felt absolute beginners with Windows 95, 66 per cent had no understanding of spreadsheets and 71 per cent knew little about email. There is every reason to believe that this is typical of the UK, yet the TTA questionnaire does not even pose these questions. The south Lanarkshire survey took up just one side of A4 paper.
The TTA is decidedly more upbeat. Stephen Harrison, who has had a major responsibility for the materials, says: "The Identification of Training Needs materials will help teachers become more objective decision makers and assist them in engaging more constructively with the training providers."
At the end of this process, teachers who get that far are expected to write down their needs so that they can be collated by the school before training providers are selected. The big question then is how far the needs of the individual will be subsumed into the needs of the school.
However, there are still concerns. At the Teacher Training Agency, quality assurance has been left until last. The selection process for the training providers has been rigorous (around 50 have been selected so far from about 158 applicants), but many of those who are approved are working with training models that are, as yet, untried. An effective quality assurance model is needed and it must be rigorous, sharp and fast enough to catch problems before too much money is wasted. The TTA promises to set up such a process, but time is tight.
The TTA has been talking for some time about OFSTED inspecting the whole project. The case for this would now appear urgent.
The TTA and NOF expect to appoint more providers. At the moment Northern Ireland has only two providers, Wales has five, Scotland nine and England 32. Special schools in all countries have a very restricted choice. There is also the lack of accreditation, meaning that some teachers might not give the training high priority when faced with other demands. Some courses in other countries link resource provision with successful completion, while others accredit the successful completion of courses. No one will stop a school seeking outside accreditation, but the NOF booklet states:
"Some training providers may offer to accredit courses which they provide... The cost of any accreditation must be met from sources other than the schools' NOF training entitlement."
However, the TTA attitude to skills training has been refined. Formerly it said that training was for the use of ICT in the curriculum rather than for the basic computer skills that many teachers still lack. The TTA's Stephen Hillier claims that the changes are semantic, but points out: "Anyone who needs it will get all the skills training that they require, but it must be integrated."
Schools have no need to be passive in the face of this initiative. The Tesco SchoolNet 2000 scheme, which has so far swept up 33,000 pupils and 14,000 teachers, has proved a potent way of training staff even though that was not its intention. Teachers have a purpose and one of the reasons that learning takes place is because there is a need, an imperative. It is inadvertent training - there is learning as there is a need to achieve a goal.
The training also has an audience: students, their parents and the rest of the world. Surprisingly, many schools are joining the project when parents point out when they are the only ones in the locality not to be involved. All this plus tight, economic, online monitoring means that schools can use this scheme to underpin, and add to, the NOF training.
This is an important time. The course is set and the year of reckoning will be 2002. The surprising thing is that no one has taken a snapshot of the ICT knowledge base in 1999 so that it can be compared with what emerges. That kind of hard information will tell us all how successful it has been. Jack Kenny