Could the Government finally be waking up to ICT for learning? Or is it just a dream? Bob Harrison reports

A sunny barbecue amid the greenery and flamingos of the Kensington Roof Gardens might have tempted me to forget “austerity” and England's schools funding crisis. But I was present as a panellist at a briefing by the British Educational Suppliers Association (Besa) for its members, and they want the facts rather than the ideology — the window dressing — particularly as the Department for Education (DfE) finally appears interested in creating a policy for ICT for learning (see below).

Trade associations are diplomatic when it comes to politics, but I have no such concerns. My role was to deliver a short presentation on the policy vacuum around the use of technology in teaching, learning and assessment in schools and colleges, and the implications for suppliers of technology and services.

The lovely setting, dating back to the original Derry and Toms department store, was of course undermined for some by knowledge of the presence, a few floors beneath us, of the Daily Mail, cheerleader of a beleaguered Government that would like to turn the clock back to the days of grammar schools and learning by rote, high stake testing and a “knowledge based curriculum”. So what did I learn from the briefing?

  • David Laws, the former Coalition schools minister (remembered for his expenses claim shame) and now head of the Education Policy Institute, suggested that power had shifted back to the DfE from Number 10 following the election and that this could stimulate policy interventions, especially in early years and technical education. He also thought teacher recruitment and retention would be a focus. He expressed his support for the fairer funding formula but was less clear whether schools struggling with cost pressures is the same thing as a cut. Nevertheless he confirmed that all schools will be worse off in 'per pupil' spend, funding formula or no funding formula, unless the Government finds an extra few billion.
  • Richard Connor from C3 Education shared the latest BESA research — not happy news for schools suppliers — indicating a drop in school spending this year of between 5 and 10 per cent with no sign of any upturn (although roughly a third of BESA members had increased sales).
  • Claire Fox from The Institute of Ideas and a panellist on Radio 4's Moral Maze delivered a passionate, but in my view ill-informed, rant — “Are we producing Generation Snowflake/” — suggesting that children are being treated with kid gloves, with too much political correctness in education.

A trip back to 2010 in the rear-view mirror

My own views about the current state of play for the use of digital technology in education started with a quick look in the rear-view mirror to 2010 when we had:

  • A national Harnessing Technology strategy;
  • A national education technology agency — Becta;
  • Ring-fenced funding for ICT;
  • Co-ordinated Regional Broadband Consortia (local grids for learning);
  • Local authority advisory teams specialising in ICT;
  • A schools minister with ICT strategy in his job description and who understood its potential;
  • A Building Schools for the Future programme with £4.5b ring-fenced for digital technology;
  • A dynamic BSF leadership programme focused on digital technology futures;
  • A Strategic Leadership programme for ICT — SLICT;
  • A DfE-funded research and evaluation strategy;
  • A senior HMI for ICT;
  • A strongly promoted ICT quality mark;
  • Thriving NAACE and edtech communities;
  • Teaching Schools National Technology Advisory Board.

Most of these were swept away within months of Messrs Gove and Gibb moving into Sanctuary Buildings, or left to wither on the vine. The loss has been immense and the void remains.

Feltag and Etag the high points in a sad story

The past few years have seen a couple of bright spots. In further education the Feltag ministerial action group established by FE/Skills minister Matthew Hancock MP is still nudging the culture of FE providers towards a more digital and sustainable future (but not mentioned on the current PowerPoint timeline for the new DfE stakeholder groups).

Sadly the Etag report, commissioned by Hancock, Willetts and Gove and welcomed at BETT, never got beyond a ministerial reshuffle. Highlights for me have been the TeachMeet movement — teachers helping themselves — and the Student Digital Leaders programme which recruits and empowers learners in schools and colleges to act as change agents and catalysts to help teachers innovate with technology.

We also had the reform of the ICT curriculum into Computing but that is another sad story for another day. The simple fact is that this Government has further undermined the capacity, legacy, infrastructure, leadership and vision for the use of digital technology in education that was first ignored by the Coalition Government.

At a time when schools need more guidance, support, advice and CPD for teachers they are left to fend for themselves. Once the UK was seen as the world leader in the use of technology for learning as the Education World Forum and the BETT Show have regularly illustrated. This is no longer the case.

Also on my Besa panel were Lord Jim Knight, a former highly-regarded schools minister who is now head of TES Global, and Professor Rose Luckin from UCL the brains behind the European-funded EDUCATE project which aims to create a hub for edtech startups, teachers, educationists and researchers. All of us stressed the enormous potential that digital technology holds for teaching, learning and assessment. But it is the context, and how teachers use technology, that can really improve learning rather the technology itself.

The DfE and its new stakeholder groups

As BESA members and guests debated the issues, plans were being finalised at the DfE for three stakeholder meetings to brainstorm policy. These have now happened and I was present for the final one on Friday last week.

What was different about this initiative was the presence at the "wash up" meeting on Friday of a high-ranking and widely respected civil servant, Emran Mian, the DfE's director of strategy and social mobility, who had an important message for those present and for the wider 'learning with technology' community (see "Government finally promises policy on ICT for learning"). He and his colleagues have their work cut out to add focus and priorities to a start that had many observers referring to the movie Groundhog Day.
The deja vu was intense as issues that were defined and understood seven years ago returned to the surface. Still, a fresh approach can bring advantages that could possible go a little way to compensate for the disappointments and bad feeling caused by seven years of inaction. It's time to move on.

Besa is to be congratulated for bringing together such a rich and varied group of panellists and speakers to explore the schools spending and policy horizon. But the uncertainty surrounding school funding, rising costs, numbers of pupils, staff shortages and the accelerating rate of technological change make it difficult to make firm predictions about business in the future.

The optimists will have found some comfort from the DfE stakeholder groups which concluded on Friday, but the bitter experience of national leadership since 2010 requires serious political commitment to lift the community's veil of deep cynicism. It's time for them to establish their credibility.

The sun may have been kind to those visiting the Kensington Roof Gardens for Besa enlightenment, but most people in the UK's educational ICT community feel they have been led up the garden path by their political leaders and policymakers before. Now the DfE has a real chance for a new vision, and there will be no shortage of support as long as the main driver is how we can use technology to improve the teaching' learning and assessment of all learners at all levels.

Bon HarrisonBob Harrison is chair of governors at Northern College, vice chair of governors at a secondary modern school in Trafford and a trustee of the UfI Trust and the YMCA. You can follow him on Twitter: @bobharrisonset  

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