Long-term disquiet about the fairness of processes behind the annual BETT awards, run by Government ICT agency Becta, has gone public.
The Three Little Cowboy Builders, a highly entertaining and funny digital 3D pop-up book that had already been voted Best Primary Resource and Innovation in Education by headteachers in the Education Resources Awards was denounced in over-the-top "politically correct" terms by the Becta judges.
The Becta feedback shocked the Shoo-fly team whose other entry to the awards, Angel Boy, created with the same imaginative benchmarks, was highly praised by the Becta judges, although finally disqualified for the inclusion of an animated book previously entered for a Bett award.
"The feedback to The Three Little Cowboy Builders, amounted to a verbal assault," says Anne Curtis, Shoo Fly’s company director," and comments such as ‘Judges had concerns about the Asian community and the use of pigs raises cultural issues' are capable of propagating racism. The central theme of Angel Boy is the importance of building respect for each other and we work very hard to be positively inclusive of all races and religions. I cannot understand how anyone who has taken time to look on our website and see our active support for other cultures can level such strong criticism.”
The Becta feedback included these comments:
- “Is it true that all builders are cowboys, builders get their work blown down, and builders are like pigs?"
- "The subject matter is questionable for certain groups within the UK."
- "The idea of taking a traditional tale and retelling a story is fine, but it should not alienate parts of the workforce (building trade)."
- "Developers should make role models positive."
- "Although this may not be intended, it feels cynical and tongue in cheek."
- "Judges would not recommend this product to the Muslim community in particular."
- "Only an exceedingly creative teacher could find this innovative."
“The word, ‘educate’ means to lead out, and this ethos is always at the heart of what we do," adds Anne Curtis. "I feel these criticisms aim to close the minds of teachers and young people to some issues. We need to be able to laugh at ourselves and laughter can be a way of coping with difficult situations - perhaps I should be laughing now...
Shoo-fly products are popular with pupils and teachers
"We are not afraid of criticism but whoever has made the judgment that there was little creativity and ‘no perceived added value to any curriculum area’ has not looked at the whole resource. Creativity is what we are known for. This is an imaginative resource, full of humour and it has proved very popular with both pupils and teachers. In fact Ofsted remarked on the positive buzz across the whole of Year 5 during a recent visit to a school working with Cowboy Builders.”
Those who use and who have seen this product will be as shocked as Anne Curtis. To drag this funny little story, a version of a European traditional tale, into some kind of politically-correct debate plays into the hands of those who would like to exploit the notion that the story of The Three Little Pigs could be banned as racist and anti-Muslim. Shoo-fly has been widely lauded for its innovative range of resources, now going online, which use a digital analogy of pop-up books (along with real ones) to provide teachers with a highly creative education materials. Delivered via an interactive whiteboard they are engaging, motivating and highly effective, say teachers.
There has been concern about the procedures underlying the BETT awards for a number of years, particularly the shortlisting, which often reflects an alarming lack of understanding of both technology and pedagogy on the part of the shortlisters – and an adherence to bureaucratic and sometimes irrelevant tick lists. Numerous reports have circulated verbally about this issue but they have not made it into print because of fears by the companies involved that they will be regarded as 'sour grapes', and concern that they could lead to future vindictiveness. And firms that have fought their corner to get back on to the shortlist and have consequently won awards have also been reluctant to talk openly.
Some stories are as bizarre as the Shoo-fly feedback. Insiders at RM insist that this was the feedback for the company's Easilearn - The Island, a 'virtual reality' island that users can 'fly' over: "It is a reasonable product but the issue of motion sickness needs to be addressed."
“We have decided to speak out because of our concern that even small award-winning, innovative companies, such as ourselves are struggling to survive in an education industry dominated by a few players”, says Anne Curtis.
The judging process, which until now has been relatively problem-free, has thrown up occasions when judges have reluctantly excluded entrants because their products have not worked on Becta-supplied equipment even though they had seen them working perfectly elsewhere.
Awards guests surprised by shortlist of two - from same company
Some of the cracks in the system are beginning to show elsewhere. For example, guests at this year's glitzy awards ceremony at a top London hotel were perplexed to see that the shortlist for the very first category in the presentation consisted of just two products – and they were from the same company.
There is also anxiety among small companies about the remarks being openly made by Becta's senior executives about the need to deal with the "corner shop" mentality of the education market. These remarks show no recognition of the innovation that has always come from small education software houses. Ask a primary teacher who provides them with the best classroom software tools – Hewlett Packard, Crick Software or 2Simple – and you can be certain it would not be the US supplier. Yet the perception is that Becta is more eager to "play with the big boys" than nurture the talent that has provided a generation of classroom-appropriate software – and that is one of the stated purposes of the BETT awards.
The entry procedures are also controversial because of the sheer amount of information that has to be submitted. Small companies feel it makes it easier for larger companies with more staff to get past the first hurdles.
Action by Becta would be welcomed to prevent the awards descending into the same kind of disrepute that necessitated their "rescue" in the first place. It indermines the achievements of worthy winners and puts off others from entering. When asked had he entered his product for the BETT 2008 awards, the creator of one of the most innovative software products on show at BETT told me, "No. I just don't trust the shortlisting and judging. I'll wait for some new awards."
Real builders 'think it is a hoot'
"What I see as humour has been interpreted as cynicism ," concludes Anne Curtis. "We have not offended one builder. In fact they think it is a hoot and the education 'moral' is clearly in the last verse of our work:
"'So the moral of this tale is very clear to me
If a builder you want to be,
Go to school, make the grade,
Take advice and learn a trade.
Or you'll end up as Wolfie's tea!'
"That's a pretty good incentive to get your head down and work hard," concludes Anne Curtis. "We were told we were stereotyping tradesmen - alienating minority groups and offending Muslims. Nothing could be further from the truth. We are proud to be a company with a strong moral ethos who respects all cultures. I feel as a small company we were absolutely stuffed!"
The BETT Awards are run by Becta in association with the British Educational Suppliers Association and EMAP Education (recently sold to a consortium including the Guardian Media Group). Sponsorship is provided by Becta and the organisation controls the categories (mocked by the awards presenter in 2007), shortlisting and judging.
The Educational Resources Awards, held annually at the Education Show in Birmingham, are organised by the British Educational Suppliers Association.
BETT 2008 awards
Education Resources Awards Winners 2007