By Bob Harrison
At first glance the 65 mentions "ICT" gets in a word search of PricewaterhouseCoopers' third evaluation of the BSF project seems a positive indication that ICT – wouldn’t it be better to call it learning technology now? – has come of age. It has moved from an afterthought to a central and pivotal element of the world's largest education capital programme. And, encouragingly, ICT even gets a mention in the executive summary: “The new school buildings have also provided opportunities to change traditional teaching styles and promoted more effective use of ICT.”
But it would have been interesting to have a little more detail about whether “the opportunity” to change traditional teaching styles had actually translated into a change in “traditional teaching styles” and, more important, whether pupils’ learning was more effective.
Most of the references to ICT in "Evaluation of Building Schools for the Future (BSF): 3rd Annual Report" however, fell into the discourse about managed services and, sadly, were not based on evidence of transformation of learning. It's early days though, and although PWC reported that “evidence from interviewees indicates a strong reluctance to accept managed service provision”, the report goes on to suggest this could be because it is largely based upon respondents’ perceptions of managed service provision (very few of the schools in the sample actually had one fully operational).
This is a crucial point amplified by the recent furore raised by recent press coverage of Bristol Brunel Academy, the first BSF school with a managed service which was opened in 2007.
ICT managed services better but room for improvement
The most recent evidence suggests that the managed service issue is improving, especially when the service has had time to become fully operational and embedded. However, the report suggests that things could be improved further. Evidence indicates that managed service providers need to work more closely with schools to allay some of the concerns they have expressed.
Headteachers were sceptical, with only 40 per cent believing the LEP (local education partnership) was an effective method of managing ICT and a significant proportion disagreed. One case-study school was prepared to forego more than £2 million of funding because: “The way the ICT contracts are set up... is again, in our opinion, nothing like good value for money. We’ve opted out… I don’t see why the school should go to big companies when those companies don’t provide a good deal.”
Many parents, pupils and communities not in BSF might consider this a little self-indulgent given that other case studies illustrated the positive advantages of a managed service. The issue has led to PWC recommending that "the business case for managed service provision needs to be more carefully thought through and the potential benefits of this approach (in contrast to schools managing their own ICT provision) needs to be more carefully explained to schools to help secure their buy-in".
They go on to suggest that there needs to be further work (remember, they are consultants) to compare the current method of ICT procurement and management and the process as part of a LEP before any conclusive comparative judgements can be made on the whole managed service issue. However a small number of schools expressed optimism that centrally managed ICT provision could create opportunities for enhanced partnership working across a local authority.
Headteachers appear to be more confident that BSF can “affect transformation” although, disappointingly, there is little evidence of a perceived relationship between ICT and transformation. They did, however, acknowledge that the learning spaces are now more interactive and technology rich, and that ICT does give more options for learniing and teaching.
There is also a recognition that schools will need to be flexible and adaptable. Given that both the curriculum and technologies are continually evolving, the new/refurbished school buildings need to be adaptable to reflect changing needs.
There was evidence that BSF was helping schools become “the heart of the community” and perhaps the fourth report will show some positive evidence of how the Home Access to Technology programme, which provides devices and connectivity for disadvantaged pupils and families, will be digitally supporting this element of BSF?
Another beneficiary of the ICT element of BSF seems to be the education workforce. According to the report: “100 per cent of headteachers surveyed expressed the view that BSF has supported the access and provision of much better ICT for all staff ‘to a great extent’ (40 per cent) or ‘to some extent’ (60 per cent)".
This finding is a little surprising given the increasing shift towards managed service provision and the mixed views expressed by headteachers about this which were also highlighted. This emphasises the timeliness of the DCSF investment of more than £5 million in the OU/Eskills Vital programme, which aims to create a “step-change” in the ICT CPD opportunities for teachers and support staff.
So the overall verdict from the third PWC evaluation of BSF (the 18th report on BSF according to Tim Byles) with ICT is largely positive although the 65 mentions of ICT in the report does not reflect any real evidence of the potential for learning transformation which is possible but accurately mirrors the “noise” around the managed service issue.
Technical Report has full feedback from schools
It's also worth dipping into the Technical Report which provides detail from the questionnaires. The learner responses are interesting and indicate perceived improvements in provision of ICT facilities and the overall effects of that provision. But questions about access to the computers reveal that 70 per cent agree with the statement "We don't get enough time to use computers in different subjects."
But let's be honest. We are still in the first stages of BSF and the Wave 1 projects are only just settling down. There are still many apocryphal tales and anecdotes swirling around conferences and events, and the rumour mills are working overtime with the good, the bad and the occasionally ugly. We should suspend judgment until we have sufficient data and hard evidence available.
What is clear is that the conditions for improvement are mutual confidence, trust and a true spirit of partnership. The big quest is whether these sit easily with perceptions of a current costly, complex and competitive procurement process which has the potential to lead to over-promising and ultimately under-delivering?
I suspect PricewaterhouseCoopers will need to do some more research...
Bob Harrison is an education consultant who works with the National College for Leadership of Schools and Children's Services (and a contributor to its Future website), the British Educational Communications and Technology Agency (Becta) and Toshiba UK. You can read his blog on the Futurelab Flux website. He runs Support for Education and Training.