Partners of Becta, the Government's axed ICT agency, were this week expressing regrets over its closure. The ICT professionals' organisation, NAACE, issued a press release and is holding an emergency "think tank" next week to "define a common statement to propose to our new Government to ensure that the value of ICT in education is properly understood by policymakers and is at the forefront of their policy decisions".
In a statement issued before its annual Nasen Live conference this week, special needs organisation Nasen said it was "very sad and disappointed" by the news because it had always had a "very positive and supportive relationship" with Becta's SEN and inclusion team. The responses indicate deep concerns in the educational ICT community about the lack of profile of ICT for learning both before and after the election.
Among other things, Nasen is worried that Becta's demise will spell the end of its respected SENCO forum which has proved an effective network for schools' special needs co-ordinators who might otherwise feel isolated as they are often working alone.
The Nasen statement continued: "Nasen is also very concerned in regard to where future support to schools on assistive technology will come from. Becta has a wealth of expertise, knowledge and understanding of the complex needs of young people and the wealth of technology that is available to meet the needs of those with the most profound needs in our schools. They can offer guidance and procurement opportunities to schools especially those offering specialist provision, in order for them to be able to afford to purchase some very expensive items to meet the needs of individual students...
"Nasen would like to thank all of the dedicated staff within Becta who over many years has worked hard to support schools, children and parents in meeting individual needs."
Fears about the future of ICT services for schools are understandable. Before the election the Conservative Party had little to say about the subject (see 'The long wait - the Tories on ICT and learning') or about the major scheme to renew and re-equip English schools (and a massive source of funding for ICT), the Building Schools for the Future programme which is now under review. And debates that prioritise "traditional" education fail to take into account the fact that, for many schools, the use of technology – digital projectors and interactive whiteboards for example – is already traditional.
A spokesperson at the Department for Education this week had very little to say about the issue other than outline the need for cuts, the shifting of resources and decision-making to schools and the fact that Becta was being abolished. There was nothing to say about transfer of services and assets, particularly in the area of special needs (see 'Assurance sought from Gove on Home Access SEN'). However, he did say that more information would be released as and when it became available.
The need to audit Becta services for possible transfer and continuity
Clearly there is a crucial need to audit important services being conducted by Becta – for example, Home Access, the SENCO network, "interoperability" (to ensure compatibility of services used by schools), e-safety, research, evaluation reports and web assets, City Learning Centres (major supports for school innovation), the Self review framework/ICT Mark – and ensure orderly transfer and continuity where possible. Presumably this is already being done by Becta and the DoE. And some organisations are already doing influential work in some areas, for example Regional Broadband consortia on e-safety and their use of contractual muscle to insist on "interoperability".
This audit is also a priority for NAACE, now made up of a wide range of ICT professionals including local authority advisers, consultants from both the public and private sectors, and teachers. The organisation, in its invite to its meeting in London on June 4, says that it has "an urgent responsibility to ensure that the collective views of the community are synthesised and effectively transmitted at this critical time".
Its press release says: "Naace notes with regret media messages that report the planned closure of Becta. The economic downturn and the inevitable cuts that follow will provide challenges for educators and the institutions they work for. Naace believes that ICT in learning is fundamental to the life chances of all...
"However, the pressing national need to achieve more for less in the public sector requires that schools adopt the use of ICT where it is proven to advance education and to provide efficiencies. For example:
- giving pupils access to resources and radically extending learning time;
- providing opportunities for pupils to take charge of their learning;
- making it possible to engage parents more strongly, and more regularly, in supporting children’s learning;
- enabling schools to continue to operate when difficulties such as snow cause the buildings to be closed;
- enabling pupils to support each others’ learning, supporting specialist subject learning and easing transition between primary and secondary school;
- saving many thousands of pounds annually in time and paper through online information, learning resources and activities, and through new approaches to education that make more effective use of staff teaching time.
"Schools need help and advice in order to adopt and embed the developing technologies that enable these things. These approaches can develop in school but organisations such as Becta and Naace, external to the school, are necessary to share these new experiences."
Becta responses range from regretful to celebratory
However, not all responses in the educational ICT community to Becta's demise have been sympathetic. Many, on blogs and on Twitter, have ranged to the celebratory. There are also revealing and critical analyses (as well as plaudits) on a space that Becta funded in a belated decision to cultivate open source – the Open Source Schools website.
Much dissatisfaction has been muted over the years because of Becta's major importance as a conduit of resources and funding. Companies, organisations and individuals were reluctant to 'rock the boat' because of Becta's institutional inability to constructively handle criticism. As a result, much negative feedback, extremely valuable for reputation management, didn't appear to make it back to the higher level – and this meant that few, apart from those who felt they were excluded by overly bureaucratic framework agreements, were prepared to speak out.
The cracks in the edifice were, however, plain to see. For example, while Becta's SEN and inclusion team has always been appreciated outside the organisation, its special needs policy has come in for serious criticism in recent years. As far back as 2008, policy problems were evident when a midlands employment tribunal was singularly unimpressed by Becta's talk of a "virtual" SEN team and staff restructuring to remove "silos". The tribunal chose to support special needs expert Sally McKeown's claim of unfair dismissal (see 'Loser Becta to pay in SEN unfair dismissal case').
The abolition of Becta was first mooted by the Conservatives, fiercely, back in 2009. The then education secretary Ed Balls MP happily joined the "bonfire of the quangos" by swiftly lopping £40 million off Becta's budget. Curiously, he ignored evidence that suggests that most schools are still not confident in their use of technology for learning and told Jeremy Vine on BBC 2: "If you went back to 1997 we didn't really have computers in schools, we weren't using IT properly. Becta's job was to get that IT into schools, and that's what they've done. It was a huge and radical change, and I'm saying to Becta we need to carry on doing some of that, and to sell that technology round the world, but we don't need the scale, now we've succeeded."
Hard to defend with little evidence of effectiveness
Becta's difficulties in its defence have been providing proof of effectiveness and meeting targets. The only public target it set itself was back in 2005 at the launch of "Harnessing Technology" when the new chief executive Stephen Crowne said the organisation wanted to increase the percentage of ICT-confident schools from around 10-15 per cent to 80 per cent "within three years". The was the first and last time that target was ever mentioned in public.
The next reference to the subject was in 2008 at the launch of the "Harnessing Technology: Next Generation Learning 2008-14" strategy where it was expressed this way: "The percentage of e-mature FE colleges rose from 6 per cent in 2003 to 25 per cent in 2008; in schools, the percentage rose from 22 per cent (primary) and 20 per cent (secondary) in 2002 to 27 per cent (primary) and 27 per cent (secondary) in 2007."
Currently there is conjecture that, if Becta can produce a prompt £10 million saving, it can earn itself a stay of execution until March 2011 (the final closure date given to staff this week was November 2010). Whatever the outcome, schools and the UK's ICT community will be looking for a creative and constructive transfer of the assets and services that will continue to be useful. No matter what new freedoms schools may enjoy, they will continue to need independent quality support and advice for ICT in a period of rapid and unpredictable change. The big challenge now is to establish what forms that support will take, (See below the latest ICT predictions from industry consultants Gartner.)
NAACE Think Tank, Friday June 4, 11am to 3pm, at Holborn Bars, 138-142 Holborn, London, EC1N 2NQ. More information from Bernadette Brooks.
Blog responses to Becta abolition
Gartner "Top End User Predictions for 2010"
- By 2012, 20% of businesses will own no IT assets.
- By 2012, India-centric IT service companies will represent 20% of the leading cloud aggregators in the market.
- By 2012, Facebook will become the hub for social networks integration and Web socialization.
- By 2014, most IT business cases will include carbon remediation costs.
- In 2012, 60% of a new PC’s total life greenhouse gas emissions will have occurred before the user first turns the machine on.
- Internet marketing will be regulated by 2015, controlling more than $250 billion in Internet marketing spending worldwide.
By 2014, more than three billion of the world’s adult population will be able to transact electronically via mobile and Internet technology.
- By 2015, context will be as influential to mobile consumer services and relationships as search engines are to the Web.
- By 2013, mobile phones will overtake PCs as the most common Web access device worldwide.