After a six-year silence on 'edtech', civil servants are working on a strategy, writes Kriss Baird

The health of the UK’s edtech community was celebrated at the Edtech UK Global Summit at London's City Hall last week. But it was more than just a cheerleading event from Ty Goddard and Ian Fordham who run the learning technologies and ICT pressure group Edtech UK and the think tank Education Foundation

It included an appearance by Bridie Tooher, the former PWC consultant who was appointed head of edtech policy and data strategy at the Department for Education (DfE) in August. So does the DfE have an edtech strategy yet?

No, but for the first time since the emergence of the Coalition Government in 2010 it appears to want one. The department believes that its hands-off approach since the closure of Becta, the government's agency for educational ICT, has helped the development of a school-led system that, itself, has also aided the rise of a burgeoning sector of edtech innovators and early adopters, independent of influence or intervention from government.  

DfE is pledged to help schools with barriers to adoption of technology  

Bridie TooherThe DfE's Bridie Tooher with Vipul Bhargava (left) and Liam MaxwellBridie Tooher revealed that the department has been working to understand what the Government’s role should be for edtech and schools. It accepts that its general role should be to enable learning providers so that they can take full advantage of the new opportunities on offer. 

It also recognises that the Government should help educators overcome the barriers to adoption (something already pointed out by its own Education Technology Action Group — Etag). It identifies the main challenges as: 

  • schools and other learning providers not knowing what to buy or who to buy from;  
  • the strength of infrastructure (basic connectivity to the internet and access to technology); 
  • building teacher and leader confidence and capability in a fast paced and changing tech landscape;  
  • creating the right conditions for a marketplace capable of solving school-level problems to thrive.   

The department now has a team working on its agenda and how it can work together with other government departments for a linked-up approach to education. The remit of DfE now stretches from schools through further education (FE) to higher education (HE) and the intention is to work steadily but surely and avoid the mistakes of previous governments. 

To underline that point she was joined on the conference panel by education technology adviser with the Department for International Trade DIT) Vipul Bhargava, education researcher and digital adviser with the Department for International Development (DfID) Mandeep Samra and the government's own chief technology officer, Liam Maxwell. His reflections revealed that there are four key factors in building a successful tech sector: 

  • talent (attracting, nurturing, retaining excellent human resource); 
  • building skills in the economy to help deliver problem-solving technology and innovation; 
  • an effective regulatory framework that helps tech companies grow and maintains data privacy that is safe and secure; 
  • networking with other markets and investing in key cities.    

He said that the Government’s focus on innovation for ’govtech’ (government technologies) started in 2010. Before then, 85 per cent of government business went to 12 companies making it difficult to spur innovation. G-Cloud was then created (now called the Digital Marketplace) and 52 per cent of its customers are now made up of SMEs (small to medium-sized enterprises) and generates £1 billion per year, making government faster at developing and delivering services, collaborating and removing friction. All solutions are based on open source, meaning there is never a need to compete with other service suppliers, for example internationally. “We should create common components and share them,” he said.

'Edtech now a key priority sector for UK Government' — Maxwell    

Mark AndersonMark Anderson closing the show at the Edtech UK Global SummitBritain leads world in open data, he added. This provides the fuel for businesses to create better services, stimulating big growth, citing Improbable and City Mapper as good examples of innovative businesses that have leveraged open data. Maxwell went on to note that the key tech sector priorities for UK government are: machine learning, fintech (financial technologies), autonomous vehicles, medical tech and edtech. 

Also making an appearance via video was Matthew Hancock MP, minister for digital and culture, the politician who spurred the creation of both Etag and its fore-runner Feltag. His contribution and welcome address stressed that since Theresa May MP became prime minister, one of her governments priorities is to improve and upskill the workforce.  

People are fond of talking about the UK’s ‘edtech lead’ but it’s also important to learn about what’s happening in other countries that could leapfrog their rivals. Government chief innovation officer Damien Lafrey was on hand to talk about the huge digital investments being made for education in Italy.

It’s a rich and integrated vision that will connect all schools to high-speed networks and even provide all primary schools with maker spaces. There’s also a digital entrepreneurship curriculum and plans for student digital ambassadors.

Then there were the other two levers for successful edtech — the startup entrepreneurs and their ‘angels’, the investors. Both sides were well-represented at City Hall with some of their better-known (including Eileen Burbidge, chair of Tech City UK and the organisation I work for, the Ufi Charitable Trust).

And there was a good showing from that other key element, teachers and school leaders. And what better to round it all off with than a working demonstration of great teaching and learning with technology. That was the finale by education's own ICT evangelist Mark Anderson, known to his 40,600 followers on Twitter as @ICTevangelist. It was an engaging show that included his Periodic Table of iPad Apps (volume 2).

'The hope is for a laser-focused strategy with clear goals'

Ty GoddardEdtech UK's Ty GoddardSo what were the lasting impressions? As an outsider peering in at the government’s newly appointed edtech team, it appears that the wheels have been greased and that turning cogs are gaining momentum. Although given the friendly competition from other territories, such as Italy and the USA which have taken a more hands-on approach by making significant public investments in their edtech ecosystems, what all this means for UK education in practice remains to be seen.

The overarching hope, however, is that this leads to a laser-focused strategy with clear goals. It should deliver a more prosperous education technologies business sector and, most important, enhance an education system fit for developing world class skills for a 21st Century workplace spanning formal education through to adult vocational skills training – and ensure that our learners of today and tomorrow are properly equipped.   

Last week's event was a step in the right direction and its organisers were accordingly upbeat. Edtech UK chair Ty Goddard, in the US for a visit to Silicon Valley, commented: "Education and learning technology looks set to be a jewel in the nation's crown as teachers, education leaders and entrepreneurs build new approaches, tools and platforms across the learning spectrum. That was underlined for us by the great turnout for our Edtech UK Global Summit and the buzz in the air. Our task is to build on that with our four priorities - impact, data, jobs/growth and celebration - to ensure the very best learning and teaching for our children." 

Kriss BairdKriss Baird is a learning technologies associate at the Ufi Charitable Trust. For more information about Ufi edtech grant funding opportunities, please visit www.ufi.co.uk


Photos: Paul Clarke 
EdTech UK 
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