BETT Week 2016 was on a high and climbing - and those at its heart are planning the next 

His message to the attendees from the 90 or so education ministers at the Education World Forum (EWF) in Westminster, and those participating online, was stark but positive. Those who have lost everything through their displacement by armed conflict or national disaster – now in the millions – are often left with only one thing, their learning. And it's also their most powerful tool for survival.

It was a debate that addressed the importance of changing learning worldwide according to context, and the supporting role of technology - and anyone interested can dip into the full video on the EFF website.

Elhadj As Sy is secretary general of the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC). He was joined by Michael Trucano, the World Bank’s senior specialist on education and innovation, EFF debaters and educators on Twitter and Facebook for a debate located at EWF, many of whose visitors would go on to attend the BETT 2016 educational technology event at London's ExCeL exhibition centre.

Although the two events are not formally linked, together they make up six days of a digital learning celebration without peer worldwide. Like BETT, EFF16 supports and promotes the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). And the time is right for harmonising the links between the events, and their messages to all visitors. Anyone who saw education reformer Michael Fullan at a recent EWF would have been keenly aware how important his message is for teachers worldwide, not just leaders.

What do BETT visitors and football fans have in common?

Going to the BETT 2016 educational technology show at London's ExCeL centre is like attending a major sporting event. Like most football fans, BETT visitors face challenging journeys to an out-of-town site, massive crowds and engaging with commercialisation ramped to the max.

But a sports event is like an open goal for fans in that everything unfolds before their eyes. At BETT 2016 it's more daunting. Visitors have to find the ideas, innovation and appropriate products and services that can help them improve learning in their schools and colleges. It takes forethought and organisation but, unlike sporting events, admission is free.

BETT 2015 attracted more than 35,000 visitors from 128 countries over its four days (most of them in three – Saturday was the graveyard shift). But despite creaking economies, and hardware companies like Toshiba quitting the retail market, 2016 broke those records and demonstrated that the Saturday is ripe for development – including bringing in parents.

Minister's speech – 'It just doesn't make sense'

A key feature of BETT shows has always been the opening speech, usually delivered by a schools minister. Important because these brought messages of government policy and investment, the Coalition Government's ditching of ICT policy reduced these to smoke-and-mirrors affairs littered with recycled announcements.

Nicky MorganNicky Morgan
Nicky Morgan MP

They no longer warrant "keynote" status. This year's, by education secretary Nicky Morgan MP, was merely a list of namechecks dropped in by speechwriters (civil servants doing PR) scratching around for credibility, which evaporated when schools minister Nick Gibb MP and Colin Hegarty (of Hegarty Maths fame) were linked in the same sentence as if no one in the audience knew that the philosophies of these two reside on different planets.

There is no longer any national policy for learning with technology, even though former education minister Michael Gove MP conceded that he had been wrong to defer all ICT decisions to England's schools in the place of national leadership. But his genuine blessing for the Government's own Educational Technology Action Group (Etag) meant nothing as its report has been completely ignored by Nicky Morgan.

Bob Harrison
Bob Harrison

Etag member and education adviser to Toshiba (Northern Europe) Bob Harrison says, "A year ago at BETT Nicky Morgan acknowledged receipt of the report from Etag, established by ministers to give the Government a steer on the future for education technology in schools and colleges. The cabinet office and the DCMS have produced a digital strategy and yet Nicky Morgan has not even had the courtesy to respond to the Etag report. Meanwhile, other countries are running with our ideas and our children are disadvantaged. It just doesn't make sense."

Nick Gibb
Nick Gibb MP

It does matter. Some of the Russian visitors for BETT Week indicated that BETT 2016 will be their last. They felt UK education has lost its global lead on learning with technology because of the ideological antics of those in charge of England's schools. It's not hard to see why when Nicky Morgan's welcome to the 90 education ministers attending the Education World Form (before visiting BETT) made no reference whatsoever to "digital" or "technology", a remarkable achievement.

Even worse, schools minister Nick Gibb MP, joining a discussion panel of international experts at EWF that included former White House adviser Karen Cator, informed them that he was pleased to have the opportunity to explain how they were profoundly misguided about technology for learning. His focus is on knowledge rather than its integration with skills and technology, and on textbooks.

The outcome? His immediate demotion to international laughing stock. Still, it would have been worse had he not been persuaded to take out the more outlandish remarks from his presentation for fear of offending his guests.

Singapore and France impressed visitors with strategies for future

Ms Foo Chi Hsia
Ms Foo Chi Hsia

So where might international visitors looking for ICT national leadership go? Places like Singapore whose BETT stand featured a speech by high commissioner Ms Foo Chi Hsia that perfectly expressed the need to embrace technology in the drive to make education more relevant and incorporate meaningful assessment of skills. Their system was 'inherited' from the UK and is dominated by knowledge aquisition.  

Enjoying a much higher profile in the BETT Arena was the launch of the French Government's new digital strategy for education. Minister of state for national education Ms Najat Vallaud Belkacem announced €30 million for teacher development and resources that would be addressed before they go near spending on technology itself. She called for a digital Entente Cordiale with the UK: "We are facing a huge revolution: the digital revolution."

Ms Najat Vallaud Belkacem
Ms Najat Vallaud Belkacem

It was an extremely positive speech about an ambitious strategy (France has been a little slow off the mark). But it's more likely to get a positive response in Wales, Ireland and Scotland than England, even though Nicky Morgan has signed an agreement for education co-operation. The French minister stated: "Curiously, sometimes, especially in French schools, we create the impression that this digital revolution does not apply to us. This is actually quite strange. I mean, this is a revolution, right? And what are French people famous for? What do we love so much? Revolution!"

Nick Gibb and Nicky Morgan appear to have no appetite for revolution, digital or otherwise, but they may soon have to change. Heard in the BETT back channel was the news that Cameron adviser Rachel Wolf, back in Downing Street after her experience with the failed Murdoch project, Amplify, reckons schools in England could do with an ICT strategy – within a year.

Teachers 'bobbing up and down' but no longer 'drowning'

The one Government action that has influenced what visitors see at BETT is the abolition of ICT and the introduction of the Computing curriculum for English schools. BETT was awash with products and services – some excellent and free – targeted at the computer science/coding element of computing. This element has caused serious problems for schools without teachers comfortable with teaching computer science, which is likely to affect its take-up. 

For those who think critics might be overstating the problem, this is how one of the architects of Computing, BCS director of education Bill Mitchell put it at a recent Westminster Education Forum on The Future of Computing: "We want to get everybody in the boat. Where we were a couple of years ago was everybody was drowning. I think where we’ve got to in terms of progress is that teachers now often feel as if their head is popping above the water, but not necessarily for very long before it goes back down below the water, so they are sort of bobbing up and down."

That may sound like it's time to send in the lifeboats, but there is a positive side. Computer science now has its rightful place in the curriculum and is supported by a very interesting and impressive voluntary network of teachers and supporters (Computing at School) who were also active throughout BETT. However, whether this can reach all schools is a moot point and serious worries remain (see "ICT teachers struggling"), particularly as Nick Gibb has killed off GCSE and A-level ICT leaving computer science as the only non-vocational qualification open to computing students - only the more technical need apply. For many students Computing now spells computer science.

However, the dreadful leadership debacle in England has not dimmed BETT's greatest asset – its community. The only way to beat the BETT rush is to arrive early or late. Going early, and relaxing with a coffee, can result in meeting a handful of contacts who make the trip worthwhile before the doors even open! Oh, there goes Professor Sugata Mitra...

ExCeL was heaving with some of the very best educators and their collaborators. They worked on stands, gave presentations, shared informally and trekked around stands (the hall was huge) and events. Yes, it's a big, noisy and tiring show but these people are its lifeblood and provide the pleasure and annual renewal.

They also have their fingers in all sorts of innovations and generate their own. For example, Professor Stephen Heppell took time off from the feature normally at the heart of BETT to take part in a range of activities that included his own Learnometer, a sort of black box device with sensors that can test for the elements that make up a good (or bad!) learning space. And a team from Devonport High School was at the show to get feedback for their excellent little homework plug-in for schools powered by Google (follow @ben40forte on Twitter to find out more).

The big three still dominate

For those wanting to keep up with the technology, the big three - Microsoft, Google and Apple - dominate. Apple may have stolen a march on its rivals with the iPad, but Microsoft is back in the ascendance with great value Office365, Surface tablets and Windows 10 (touch technology on all devices).

Now a BETT strategic partner, the Microsoft presence is stronger than ever and its partners had their own space to show the range of attractive and affordable mobile devices spawned by Microsoft's resurgence (see Gerald Haigh's post on Microsoft's Schools Blog). Its own site was a powerful magnet with multiple poles of attraction: the latest devices, tablets, laptops and screens; the Minecraft for Education section (follow @dbingyou on Twitter to find out more) was mobbed as was the section devoted to the BBC's micro:bit programming device.

Google's Android has rivalled Apple in the mobile market since the appearance of the iPhone, and its Chromebooks have made real, stealthy inroads into schools (53 per cent of the computers being sold into US schools). Coupled with Google Apps for Education and Google Classroom the company has a compelling offering for schools and was turning heads at BETT with its Google Expeditions.

And Apple? Well Apple resellers were at BETT, and its apps were absolutely everywhere. but the company doesn't support other people's events. Its notion of collaboration is running its own event elsewhere in London, coincidentally (of course) at the same time as BETT. While it's easy to criticise Apple's strategy and its performance in partnering education, there's no point carping about its products. The sales speak for themselves and apps sales are still dominated by Apple. But now it has serious competition.

But it's not a case of which is best, just what's best for the customer. And that depends on context and partnership.

Microsoft's edge is its investment, expert teachers and research

Digging deep: 'Minecraft' took them down at BETT 2016

What gives Microsoft an important edge just now is the huge investment it has made in education as a core business, and the wonderful global network of innovative teachers it has cultivated, linked to a research program dedicated to changing practice for the better. It dwarfs what other companies have done, is replenished year on year, and these teachers are great ambassadors for learning with technology as well as for Microsoft.

They are a visible reminder that the real value of BETT is its community of educators who are focused on changing learning and teaching, and use technology to do that. And those who work with them of course. Politics and assessment regimes might hinder their way but they are at the core of what makes BETT such an irresistible attraction.

Education suppliers had lots of shiny new devices on show, some fresh from the CES show in Las Vegas. But here it is the education relationships that are worth investigating, like Dell's with Noel-Baker School in Derby. Lee Jepson, business manager of Noel-Baker IT Services was on the Dell stand with an amazing story to share.

The school ICT manager who looks after 50 schools

Lee Jepson
Lee Jepson

His school is a Building Schools for the Future (BSF) success story. The new-build school rethought its teaching and learning and the technology to support and to engage students. The result is a rich and ambitious technology strategy - supported by Dell - that has different implementations of 1-1 throughout, including laptops for every member of the new sixth form paid for by the school.

Its success with ICT has brought in other schools and now Lee Jepson's team manages the ICT for 50 local schools, anything from Kindles for literacy work in primary to sets of iPads. While the concept of 'managed services' for BSF took a battering in some areas because of excessive charges and lack of sensitivity to schools' needs, Noel-Baker and Dell have persevered and demonstrated that the strength lies in the relationship every time. (More on Lee Jepson and Noel-Baker School on this site soon).

If you think you can 'do' BETT, forget it

BETT is too big for any one journalist to cover it - that takes a team - and next year it will fill one half of the ExCeL floorspace (the entire length of the building). So it's not just a mental challenge but a physical one too. And this journalist, regretfully, couldn't get to another lifespring of innovation, the startups and the Futures section. If six people scoured BETT for four days, each would come back with a different story.

There was innovation everywhere, particularly on the LearnPad stand which built on its 2015 breakthrough with a coherent suite from mobile devices through to interactive screens with processors built in and integrated furniture. All thoughtfully created for schools and hard-pressed budgets. The range now includes the new ClassCharge mini-trolley for wireless charging tablets (including iPads) that picked up a BETT Digital Devices Award (see "LearnPad – independent, agile, good value and cool"). Suddenly, Apple users found a reason to visit LearnPad - and save themselves a lot of money.

There was also an innovative free app that is sure to be a hit with parents. It allows teachers to easily share children's work with their parents. ClassBoard (on Apple or Android) lets them take pictures of pupils' work and send a URL to their parents so they can go online and view. It's especially good for parents under pressure or away from home - a treat.

Other new interactive displays attracting attention were the VIVIDtouch screens on the Steljes stand. Incorporating PC processors and Windows 10 they can run any interactive whiteboard software and feature a new touch system built into the glass which is said to be more accurate (prices start at £2,800 for a 63-inch screen).

Agent4change researcher Megan McTaggart meets Dave and Nancy

However, this level of innovation couldn't prepare visitors for what Nancy Knowlton and Dave Martin, creators of the first interactive whiteboard and SMART Technologies, brought to BETT 2016. In previous years they had teased customers with glimpses of interactive wall displays. Now they have done it, with a stunningly innovative interactive and collaborative set-up called the nureva Span (also distributed by Steljes).

The basic project integrates a panoramic interactive projector with a cloud service and apps that give interaction with what is on the wall screen. No whiteboard is required, just a wall with a suitable surface (an appropriate 'stick-on' wall covering is available if required).

One projector covers 10 feet of wall surface, but the 'virtual screen' (held in the cloud) is twice as wide and can be simply scrolled across the illuminated wall surface. The teacher can create objects (containers for text and graphics) on the screen and students can interact with them with their mobile devices and add their own. Projectors can be added to widen the interactive surface.

First glimpse is mind-boggling but using it becomes second nature in seconds.'s own BETT researcher, Megan McTaggart, aged 10 (pictured), developed an instant preference for it over her own classroom whiteboard (the system can work on whiteboards too, but with a size limitation). She was even more impressed when told that the first nureva customer was NASA (for its Mars project).

nureva Span

The only rival for Megan was the LEGO stand, brimming with creativity and innovation. It had launched its WeDo 2.0 package, designed spcifically for primary science and computing, complete with its own clever software and extensive support for teachers. Probably the best and most accessible package LEGO has produced for schools, its use will move naturally way beyond the subjects it has been carefully tailored for.

What she didn't get to see was more mind-boggling innovation on the Academia stand where they were showing a beguiling 3D workstation/studio from HP. The HP Sprout is due for launch in March (around £1,800) and features a touchscreen, all-in-on Windows 10 PC integrated with laser scanner and a suite of very clever apps. In the right hands the possibilities are amazing for 3D and animation work. They also had a lovely little device for those who need tactile with their digital. The Bamboo Spark looks like a cool paper notebook - and it is. But it also makes a digital copy of all notes and sketches. Again, in the right hands a source of wonder.

Why BETT 2016 was STEAMing

Efforts have been made to integrate great teachers and leaders throughout BETT's programme of panels and seminars and this year a new area emerged, the STEAM Village, where they put the A (arts) into STEM. An immediate success, it was constantly busy and showed why organisations like Apps for Good have attracted so much interest with this broad and creative approach to creative projects with an appropriate use of technology. It was also a good place to make sense of the explosion of robotics and 3D printing at the show - new technology that brings fresh demands for school CPD.

Nick Corston
Nick Corston

One of the new faces to emerge here was the co-founder of the charity STEAM Co, Nick Corston. He's been described by The Guardian and Wired, with untypical understatement, as a man on a mission. He's that and more as he pursues his crusade to heighten the creativity in primary schools with events that engage the community too.

"It’s easy sometimes to forget that BETT does so much more than it says on the tin, ie talk about technology in education from back office functions like VLEs to its impact on teaching and learning," he says.

"It’s great to see BETT 2016 build on Sir Ken Robinson’s absolutely packed keynote last year, with its increased focus on creativity, not least by spelling STEM with an ‘A’ and placing greater emphasis on the STEAM movement which brings art and the arts into the STEM agenda.

"Importantly, it also captures the imagination of children at an early age that wider STEM and STEAM initiatives can build on."

Time to take stock on BETT Week

The initial worries about sustainability caused by the move to ExCeL and, previously, the loss of funding for the BETT Awards and the Education World Forum caused by the Coalition Government's closure of Becta and complete lack of interest in learning with technology, are now buried. BETT is as busy as ever and growing so it's a perfect time for the organisers to take stock.

There has been a growing feeling that the event has been steered by 'spreadsheet vision', by executives more concerned with money than people. For example, where BETT at Olympia enjoyed three nights of teacher-organised events, the ExCeL show, with better facilities and increased revenue, has only one despite assurances given. Yes, it may be the biggest TeachMeet in the world but that gives way to new issues already being aired on Facebook.

And the subject associations, important for teachers, disappeared from BETT years ago due to rising costs. Last year it was the turn of the UK's own association for education ICT professionals, Naace, to lose its place. Thankfully it's back this year but a show like BETT needs an inclusive approach, and a creative spreadsheet can factor in professional expertise and experience with real values.

The good news is that i2i organisers are aware of these concerns and want to respond, so it's a good time for interested teachers to further their wishes by preparing their own pitches. TeachMeet is designed like a mountain bike for learning and can visit all sorts of terrain. And of course there are other collaborative possibilities.

It's also worth looking at seminars. People with successful suggestions for seminars who were then asked for £3,000 to stage them have discussed this openly on Facebook so it would be good to have some transparency. Was it because they were thought to represent a company? Or not? There have been brilliant presentations at BETT 2016; that kind of uncertainty can undermine their credibility if there are questions about whose voice visitors are hearing.

Finally, the special needs section needs some cultivating to halt its evident decline. Inclusion of all kinds needs proper recognition, otherwise it can drop out of sight. There are some clear stars, like Clicker (see "'Clicker' gets the laurels"), but the presence appears to be shrinking. Ironically, one of the most exciting inclusion launches took place on the 'fringe', rather than inside the event (see "First smart learning system for kids with complex needs - 'Insight'").  

picDomCarHarmonisation between the Education World Forum and BETT could enrich the experiences of everyone taking part in BETT Week. EWF is closely focused on changing learning and teaching, and that message and a speaker agenda which supported that more closely would be welcomed by the teachers attending BETT.

Dominic Savage, who is standing down as director general of Besa and was presented with the BETT Outstanding Achievement Award by Nicky Morgan last week will be playing a greater role in EWF (he is succeeded at Besa by Caroline Wright and her new director Patrick Hayes, both pictured left with Dominic at the EWF - far left Justine Greening MP, secretary of state for international development). His organisation saved this important global event from thoughtless Coalition Government cuts, and now is the time to develop it further. BETT could be a tremendously powerful partrner in amplifying its messages.

BETT 2016 has only just finisihed so it may seem somewhat previous to make these points, but the fact is that with such an important, dynamic event the feedback and planning comes immediatelty after it's finished.

Many of the rest of us enjoy BETT as a people event, so we don't have to be too rigid with our planning. Serendipity can bump you into a great friend from anywhere from Belfast to Bangalore and you really do not want to run off, at BETT 2017, telling them something like, "Sorry, there's a Coding for Chiropractors seminar I have to get to." Loosen up, treat it like a sporting event where you have to pay for the unpredictability and brilliance, and have fun. See you at BETT 2017...

More information  
EFF16 was conducted over the high-definition video-conferencing network run by sponsor Polycom and livestreamed over the internet from for extension on social media.
EFF17 wil take place on March 7 to mark Unesco Mobile Learning Week. Follow @EFFdebate for updates or visit 
For more information on STEAM Co. and how you can help run a STEAM Co Day visit
Special thanks to the Mango team and press office staff who made the busiest ever BETT a lot more manageable


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