Government pledges raise hopes of better support for technology for learning

After seven years of almost total government neglect of schools ICT, the Department for Education (DfE) is finally showing signs of developing the political will to create a policy for its schools and colleges.

It has just conducted three stakeholder meetings with representatives of the education community and sent senior civil servant Emran Mian, director of strategy and social mobility at the DfE to deliver a clear message: "We have been more absent in this space than we should have been, but there has been a shift in leadership in the DfE and we have had a very clear and strong steer from the Secretary of State. Now there is alignment between political leadership and civil service leadership on this issue."

Matthew Hancock MPIt's an important message from someone with a strong track record both inside and outside the civil service, and it indicates that the DfE is no longer immune from modernising policies already operating across other departments, like the new £20 million Cyber Schools Programme launched this week by Matt Hancock MP, minister for digital at the DCMS (pictured right, who was also supportive of Feltag). A strong digital education policy makes a lot more sense when part of a wider national policy; for example broadband for schools should be an integrated element of a national infrastructure strategy.

Positive responses despite absent policy leadership since 2010

The first DfE stakeholder group meeting held over the past two weeks looked at “Edtech and Educational Impact”, the second “Edtech and Efficiency” and the third, originally billed as “Digital Infrastructure and Hardware”, became a “wash up” exercise for the results of the first two meetings. It would be easy to be cynical after seven years of inaction, false promises, low-level statements of intent from the DfE and its somewhat ad hoc invitation list and key points for discussion (rather light on learning and teaching), but the presence of Emran Mian was a cause for optimism for many.

Mark Chambers"I was pleased to be invited on behalf of the Naace community to participate in an edtech stakeholder group with DFE and BEIS," said Mark Chambers (pictured left), CEO of Naace, the membership association for those working with technology for learning. "I was even more pleased to hear from the civil servants leading the session that there are 'changing priorities and a clear instruction to focus on edtech and its benefits'."

He was even more pleased by Emran Mian's highlighting of the alignment of political and civil service leadership, and added: "Along with a few others in the room I was involved, on behalf of Naace, with the Etag [Educational Technology Action Group] group and its predecessor [Feltag] and, at that time, hopeful of a drive from key strategic leadership to support the effective utilisation of EdTech in our schools and colleges.

Sector 'at best rudderless and, at worst, sinking fast'

"For numerous reasons this did not materialise and the sector has been left at best rudderless and, at worst, sinking fast with respect to understanding, investing and effectively utilising edtech to improve outcomes for young people."

Bob HarrisonEducation consultant Bob Harrison (pictured right) who was also present at the "wash up" last Friday was one of many who has been dismayed by national leadership since the arrival of the Coalition Government (see his article "Up the garden path — with the flamingos"). He said, "It has been a frustrating few years for those of us who are passionate about the ways in which technology can enhance teaching, learning and assessment across all the sectors in education.

"But this is a welcome shift in emphasis by the DfE and it will only be successful if teachers and lecturers see clear evidence of how technology will improve learning."

The caution is entirely understandable given the dismal political performance in this area over the past seven years which has resulted in fewer students taking technology related general certificates of education, the exact opposite of the desired outcome of the reform of the ICT curriculum into 'Computing. And effective use of ICT has slipped in many schools.

Paul HaighPaul Haigh (left) is headteacher of King Ecgbert School in Sheffield. He was one of the first teachers to successfully incorporate the appropriate use of mobile phones in lessons and was a founder member of the National Technology Advisory Board for schools. After reading the DfE PowerPoint presentations for the stakeholder meetings he commented: "Now they finally understand what Becta and SSAT were doing; imagine where we might be now if we'd carried on? It's incredible: seven wasted years."

The task now for Emran Mian and his colleagues is to start lifting policy from its 'ground zero' status in the aftermath of Michael Gove MP and Nick Gibb MP, and develop coherent strands of thought from their consultations. These can then be mapped to a broader and more ambitious national vision co-ordinated between government departments. That is the theory and the hope.

They will have to be cautious of the kind of industry involvement that has resulted in the unrestrained lurch to coding and computer science in the curriculum reform that led to Computing. It's crucial that the needs of children and their teachers are at the forefront and are supported by seasoned educators.

'We might have an initiative that can make the difference'

Naace's Mark Chambers is hopeful: "It does not matter for me if the new imperative comes from a realisation that there is a £100 billion-a-year global edtech market of which the UK only provides £1 billion, or the recognition that our digital economy is increasingly desperately looking at school leavers who cannot demonstrate their digital competence with an advanced level qualification. What matters was revealed in another refreshing statement from a civil servant present in the room that looked like a significant 'conversion': 'A stronger edtech sector and improved educational outcomes are two sides of the same coin.'

"Now at last — and I need to add just in time — we might have an initiative that can make the difference to young people's entitlement to a real and relevant educational experience that truly equips them for life, for work and for leisure. I just might feel like starting my career again!"

Cyber Schools Programme website — register your interest