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Home Heard Diary Is DfE's ICT love-in over? Technology Policy Unit axed

Is DfE's ICT love-in over? Technology Policy Unit axed

Does the Government need a policy or strategy for learning with ICT? It seems not
Michael Gove MP at BETT 2012How strange that, so soon after education secretary Michael Gove MP finally acknowledged the importance of technology for education, and pledged a shake-up of the ICT curriculum and computer studies in his speech at BETT 2012, the Department for Education appears to have disbanded its Technology Policy Unit,

It's understood that unit team leader Vanessa Pittard, who also had responsibility for science, has moved to cover STEM (science, technology and maths) and her four other team members are to be redeployed elsewhere because a DfE review of the unit considers there is "no business need in year ahead".

It's now unclear who at the department will conduct its own current consultation on ICT and computer studies  launched by Michael Gove at BETT. At the DfE’s behest Naace and ALT also hosted a "conversation" (at http://schoolstech.org.uk) about ICT in teaching and learning which used stimulus questions provided by DFE. This attracted some 150 responses, most of them lacklustre. Naace and ALT are now pulling together the conclusions for the department.

The Coalition Government is flying in the face of international trends. UK experts in learning with technology are in demand all over the world, helping governments develop their strategies and investments – for example the work of Imagination Education's Baldev Singh and Dan Roberts in the Middle East. However, the Coalition Government appears to have no interest in involving some of the best educators of their generation in national leadership for ICT, and is actively cutting its existing capacity.

Nick Gibb pledged 'continued expertise to support this very important area'

Nick Gibb MPOnly last year schools minister Nick Gibb MP, previously known for his lauding of old-style public school education, pedestrian views on phonics and ignorance about ICT, started improvising his public tune on technology. His response, via a spokesperson to a policy query from ICT teacher Brian Sharland, shared on his blog, actually highlighted the work of the unit: "We continue to support such good work, that is why following Becta's closure we set up the Technology Policy Unit within the Department and brought some of the Becta functions in house to ensure continued expertise to support this very important area.

"The department is currently developing its thinking and strategies on technology in schools, engaging with a wide range of stakeholders including school leaders, professional bodies, educational charities, industry, academics and other experts. The strategy will aim at enabling schools and teachers to take advantage of opportunities presented by technology to deliver technology and improve effectiveness and efficiency including around the purchase of technology."

Who will be doing all that important work for the DfE is now a mystery. Ironically, Nick Gibb's spokesperson advised Brian Sharland to collaborate and share ideas and best practice – and named as his contact one of the very civil servants who is losing his position.

How the DfE will be able to advise schools on issues like its new Management Information Systems (MIS) Framework for school purchase of digital management systems is another conundrum, particularly as vendors like RM are setting up their own advice sites for potential school customers while there is precious little available from the Government. An early draft of the framework reportedly advised schools to use local servers rather than go for cloud services which is now a clear market trend. Apparently its density and lack of clarity resulted in it attracting 279 requests for clarification (see Crispin Weston's "Stop the IMLS Framework" blog post).

'Adapt to and welcome every new technological advance that comes along'

Michael Gove’s BETT speech revealed a gushing, new-found enthusiasm for technology for learning, full of detail provided by the DfE advisers in the now-axed unit. He announced changes to the ICT curriculum and promised new, meaningful developments for computer studies – possibly for the English 'Bacc' – even though there are not enough sufficiently skilled teachers to provide the lessons.

“We want a modern education system which exploits the best that technology can offer to schools, teachers and pupils," he said. "Where schools use technology in imaginative and effective ways to build the knowledge, understanding and skills that young people need for the future. And where we can adapt to and welcome every new technological advance that comes along to change everything, all over again, in ways we never expected..”

How this can be achieved without objective ICT expertise for leadership at the heart of government remains to be seen. Who will advise ministers: real experts i pedagogy and technology or their friends in the likes of News International, Pearsons and Apple? The words that come to mind for the cynics include “emperor” and “no clothes”.

One insider commented: “We need to look at what the politicians are actually doing rather than simply respond to what they are saying. Right now they are the weakest link. Their real agenda has been to privatise England’s state schools and hand over responsibility to the private sector. That has, in effect, already been achieved – now they are already on to the National Health Service – and schools have to get used to that and work out the strategies that suit them best.”

So, despite the blandishments of the politicians, "Don't wait for Westminster" continues to be the best advice for school leaders and teachers on curriculum use and purchase of ICT. Maybe the private sector is expected to fill the void.

Picture credit: Photo of Nick Gibb MP courtesy of UK in Hong Kong Flickr photostream

 
Comments (7)
7 Wednesday, 28 March 2012 09:35
Bob Harrison
Some interesting comments... but I have to disagree with Julie and her advice to "step back". Schools need to get "stuck in" and they will need a lot of help and support. That's where Naace and all the other networks need to step forward – not back surely? Tribal, Capita, Serco, Pearson et al will not be stepping back I assure you!
6 Tuesday, 27 March 2012 19:51
Julie Frankland
I think it is time to step back and reflect on what we are trying to achieve with our Education System. We need to look outwards from our schools and see the world for which we are prpeparing learners. It is dominated by ICT/IT in the world or work, communication, research and socialising so how can we contemplate not developing their capabilities to use and apply ICT knowledge, skills and understanding?
As professionals we need to keep this in the forefront of our minds. As individual professionals, we may not have as much experience and expertise in this field as some of the professional associations 'out there' such as Naace and CAS; however, their raison d’être is to advance education through the apppropriate use of ICT and Naace, in particular, has been workng tirelessly to document and share a much more creative appproach to developing ICT capability from early years through to post-16. This includes programming and computer science/studies.
ICT remains a statutory entitlement for all learners and all schools need to have systems in place to develop pupils' capability in order to unleash their creativity and give teachers the skills and resources to make learning exciting and engaging. So, despite the removal of Becta and the Technology Policy Unit at the DfE, we, as educators, have a huge responsibility here - these learners only pass this way once and every opportunity wasted is an opportunity lost!
5 Tuesday, 27 March 2012 11:24
Richard Taylor
Just because Michael Gove doesn’t get IT doesn't mean the sky is falling in, just as the demise of BECTA didn't. The reality is the previous government invested billions in what they called 'ICT' (IT to the rest of the world) and the results have been at best disappointing.
There was contradictory policy (e.g. eLearning credits and BBC jam), huge waste e.g. £20m+ on Laptops for Teachers without any clear goals or evaluation, £240m on VLEs yet Moodle, the most popular, was free, etc, etc. Yes, IT has a huge contribution to make in education, but frankly some of the most innovative things I have seen come from the US not the UK. This isn't because we can't innovate (we do successfully in education) but because, partly the US has a stronger culture of private sector companies investing in educational innovation.
In the US, Pearson (a UK company) has made 10+ startup investments in education in the last 12 months (primarily via Learn Capital) but has invested £0 in UK educational start-ups over the same period. Equally, in the US there has been huge pressure on schools to innovate because of the collapse of the property market, as property tax is (in most states) is a key source of school funding.
While we sit around moaning about the DfE, the demise of BECTA and refighting battles about selection, testing etc, schools like Rocketship Education, School of One and HSConline (Australia) are delivering 21st century education. None of these came about because of a central government or departmental initiative; they came from innovation within education and often by linking with education entrepreneurs. Part of our problem lies at this junction of business and education; as a nation we feel uncomfortable about the issue of profit in education. And it's not just the UK, in India Shantanu Prakash, the CEO of EduComp, described the same issue (in India) to me as 'the love that dares not speak its name'.
Ironically, pretty much everything our schools and students use comes from for-profit companies ranging from behemoths like Pearson to those who make and sell toilet paper, paint, water and electricity. However the private sector alone can't fix for education; at SXSW edu there was a great case study about secondary schools in Utah who were using free source (Creative Commons) science textbooks. These had been written with charitable funding and cost $5.50 each (inc. adaptation by teachers, print and distribution) and so were cheaper for each student to have their own copy than an $80 textbook from a commercial publisher, which the school required to last 8+ years!
Yes, we need IT, yes we need to improve education in the UK, but if you think truly sustainable educational innovation will come from 5 people at the DfE, then you are dreaming! I was just talking to my nephews in Australia and told them that at SXSW edu, Marjorie Scardino (CEO of Pearson) had said ‘exceptional is the new average’ and that (to paraphrase her) anyone who didn't believe it had better get used to being a poor, second-class international citizen. I’m sure they didn't understand what I was trying to say, nor did their parents, but one day soon they will, whether they like it or not.
4 Tuesday, 27 March 2012 10:55
Ian Lynch
I'd prefer to see this as an opportunity rather than a threat. If we look at the effect of centralised curriculum specifications, frameworks etc how successfully have they really been? How much has it cost and to what benefit? A billion pounds on COL including all the allied support issues etc and do we have a freely available on-line wikipedia style content to support learning in a Web 2 age? We spent around £50-£100k for every lesson in the 5-16 NC in every subject yet we have just about nothing to show for it. We need to take back control at grass roots level through community projects, small businesses and social enterprise. Subject groups like NAACE and CAS should provide the focus, not central government. I sometimes wonder if we have become so steeped in dependency culture that we think that no change can take place without an act of parliament. Let's just do it.
3 Tuesday, 27 March 2012 10:34
Leon Cych
I see this as a tremendous opportunity for all the snake oil salesment out there to set up their stalls ;)
Actually I see it as a marvellous freeing up of schools to write their own agendas and to open up the learning - remember Ofsted will come down on any school not doing ICT. However, if more radical schools decide to take things into their own hands, devices, cloud services and doing away with IE et al to truly network people then Gov't can't then complain in the wake of what they have done.
We now need a BS service radar for schools otherwise the poor headteachers will herd towards any old gossip they encounter and shut down IT depts and devices as well as jobs. Otherwise I think this is a superb opportunity to get in there and do some excellent work.  
2 Tuesday, 27 March 2012 08:49
Bob Harrison
There is an enormous danger that, in the absence of any real policy framework or strategy (Bett speech "We will not prescribe but encourage and support") there will be an enormous waste of energy and duplication of effort. It is vital (no pun intended) that schools "help each other to help ourselves" as our friend Stephen Heppell reminds us. I think the newly formed Teaching Schools (500 by 2014) will play a crucial part, but schools will need help surely?
1 Tuesday, 27 March 2012 07:45
john Hobson
In a way I'm not surprised as ICT is now solely in the hands of the vociferous Programming lobby and certain elements within the industry. Presumably they are going to write the new curriculum. Or not. Maybe this is the end. The DFE has got rid of or redeployed large swathes of staff to the point that there's no one left with expertise in most areas except blame. I believe that in at least one area (Enterprise) they had to ring up teaching bodies to find out what their Enterprise policy was!

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