Has ICT for learning hit the Coalition buffers? Bob Harrison and Merlin John discover contradictions
The Coalition Government has welcomed the findings of the James Review – that learning should have nothing to do with the design of school buildings, and neither should the views of students about the learning spaces they will inhabit.
It spells a shift to the commoditisation of school buildings – predetermined designs with built-in ICT infrastructure. Add to that the capital spend per Academy pupil for ICT dropping to £800, down from its £1,450 BSF peak, and not even a mention of ICT capability in the new Teachers’ Standards for English schools, and prospects for ICT look very bleak. Or do they?
Just as Parliament went into recess, education secretary of state Michael Gove MP accepted, subject to further consultation, the recommendations from the Capital Review commissioned from Currys boss Sebastian James. No surprise there. The report delivered what he obviously sought in the name of making savings: a clumsy, extended and ideological attack on the Building Schools for the Future programme, centralisation of the production of ‘standardised’ school buildings, and the removal of any aspect of learning or student voice from the design of school buildings.
Currys and Tesco had little to say about ICT for schools
For a report which came from two companies steeped in the use of ICT for their business (Currys and Tesco), it was astonishingly ‘ICT-lite’, and light on detail too considering it was more than five months late. These two companies design stores for shoppers to visit for little more than 30 minutes a time. How odd then to brush aside the views of learners who will visit five full days a week for up to 10 years of their school days. Would they openly display such a cavalier approach to the wishes of their customers?
Curiously there wasn’t even an exploration of how ICT and online services could release savings or affect the design of learning spaces.
Given the time allocated for the authors to get their heads around the complexity of school broadband services, the absence of helpful, constructive advice was also baffling. As was the 'end of term' announcement of £2 billion capital available through PFI, not a mode of finance closely associated with value for money.
Thankfully, behind the scenes, the arrival at the Department for Education (DfE) of Vanessa Pittard from Becta saved the Coalition Government from letting its hard-line ‘market forces’ approach to school services wreck the infrastructure delivering school broadband services to English schools.
The new head of the technology policy unit in the DfE’s school standards directorate listened to the worries of the Regional Broadband Consortiums and what ICT expertise was left after the “bonfire of the quangos”, and took prompt action with JISC to help secure continuity of schools broadband services. Her role now, along with duties for maths and science, is to develop the department’s ICT strategy on which Michael Gove has been rumoured to make an announcement imminently.
speech on maths and science to the Royal Society. This was eagerly picked up by those desperate for a government green light for learning and technology. Now thought to be the first of a series of ‘mini announcements’, it included the comment: “So as well as reviewing our curriculum and strengthening our workforce, we need to look at the way the very technological innovations we are racing to keep up with can help us along the way. We need to change curricula, tests and teaching to keep up with technology, and technology itself is changing curricula, tests, and teaching.”Hence the first sign of change which came in his recent
Of course, anyone versed in ICT and learning would find his references to iTunesU, du Sautoy’s games and Stanford Research Institute (not a 'recognised' part of Stanford University) somewhat jarring. There are far more relevant and powerful examples closer to home, for example teachers like Dawn Hallybone using handhelds to re-inforce mental maths and engage primary learners. While this may be a welcome flagging of the importance of ICT for learning that has been deliberately unacknowledged since even before the election (see "The long wait – the Tories and ICT for learning"), it is hardly a convincing reassurance that the Government finally ‘gets it’.
Responses in House of Lords reveal Government thinking on ICT for learning
Hansard reveals a turnaround from Lord Hill reminiscent of the News International surrender of information about questionable payments as a result of Government enquiries (which, incidentally, might one day consider why Michael Gove and schools minister Nick Gibb received regular fabulous sums of £2,500 apiece for newspaper columns for NI, along with Gove's 10 meetings since the election with Rupert Murdoch who is said to be planning major investments in digital learning materials). Lord Hill yielded the following (edited) acknowledgement in the House of Lords exchange:Perhaps more reassuring has been the rearguard action from Labour peers seeking amendments to the Education Bill, couched in the musty language of the House of Lords. A dip into the activities of ‘m'luds’ David Puttnam and Phil Willis in
“To put it kindly, I am afraid that, at present, the White Paper is technology-light. I am concerned about that because the whole purpose is to start a serious conversation both at the department and with the minister. We need the reassurance of knowing that this subject will not be like discussing the adaptation to or mitigation of climate change with someone who does not really accept that climate change is an important reality. This is a reality.”
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Schools (Lord Hill of Oareford):
"First, I agree very much with the view expressed by the noble Lord, Lord Puttnam, and with the powerful speech made by my noble friend Lord Willis on Monday, when we last discussed this before being rudely interrupted. My noble friend was absolutely right that the effective use of technology clearly supports good teaching and helps raise standards.
"As he argues clearly, it is not an either/or between, for example, Shakespeare and technology. I have had that conversation with the noble Lord, Lord Puttnam, before. He made the case powerfully to me that technology can bring Shakespeare within reach of people for whom the traditional way of books would be much harder; it can bring it to life in a way that the Arden set might not...
"One point that was not raised about technology is the fact that we have an extraordinarily successful market in educational technology in the UK. We are a leader, so there are strong commercial reasons why we should support it. We want to encourage sharing of evidence of effective practice in the use of technology and improved teacher skills in using it. My noble friend and the noble Lord, Lord Puttnam, have given me a useful nudge - I think that that is the word - or prod about the importance of that.
"We are talking to a number of interested parties-school leaders, professional bodies, educational charities, industry, academics and other experts-about how the department should take forward its thinking about technology. Given the pace of change, we think it important to allow schools and teachers themselves, working with industry, to respond to the changes. We want to give teachers the freedom to choose how to use it to create lessons that engage their pupils and enable them to achieve their full potential. The noble Lord, Lord Puttnam, gave a powerful example of how that is happening. The noble Lord, Lord Puttnam, and my noble friend talked on Monday about having a conversation with the department. I would certainly welcome such a conversation and invite both of them and any other noble Lords with an interest to help us develop our thinking..."
Acknowledgement of ICT for learning has taken the Coalition one year
The big question is why it has taken more than a year for these conversations to take place. It is understood that Lord Hill’s change of mind on the effectiveness of ICT for learning has occurred within the last month, which is extraordinary given that he visited Broadclyst Community Primary School for its bicentenary celebrations which coincided with it becoming the first primary academy last year.
Broadclyst, in Devon, is a school where the advanced implementation of ICT for excellent learning is integral and unavoidable. In fact Lord Hill was interviewed by pupils for a vodcast on the school website. In the interview he told the children that he acknowledged the special kinds of learning happening at their school, including "brillliant IT", and that academy status would give headteacher Jonathan Bishop the freedom to develop more of this learning (download video interview here).
Lord Hill, who asked for the amendment to be withdrawn, went on to mention the positive role of the e-Learning Foundation and the possibilities of using the pupil premium for the kinds of ICT that can bridge the "digital divide". His words were not lost on Valerie Thompson, chief executive of the e-Learning Foundation because Lord Hill also made his views clear in response to parliamentary questions from Lord Willis who is also chair of the e-Learning Foundation.
The answers reveal that the Government sees the Pupil Premium as the mechanism for dealing with pupil inequalities: "The Premium will give schools the flexibility they require to help those pupils who need it most, including providing information and communication technology, if appropriate. Many schools offer pupils before and after school access to ICT and some are working with the charitable and commercial sectors to help provide access at home."
Asked about the effects of funding cuts, he answers, "The Harnessing technology Grant to schools was limited (2008-2011) funding which was always scheduled to end in 2011. The grant was reduced in its final year as part of the wider package of savings which the Government had to make due to the current fiscal climate and a need to reduce the budget deficit [no mention here of Gove snatching half the final funding, £50 million, to fund the free schools programme].
“Evidence points to technology now being well embedded in schools and so the case for a separate funding stream is diminished. Following significant ICT investment in schools over the years, the Government believes that schools should now be in a position to be able to move to a more sustainable model.
“This is in line with its commitment to devolve power to schools by giving them more freedom to take decisions that best suit their particular circumstances and moving away from any top-down intervention unless necessary.”
Lord Hill concedes 'strong body of evidence' favouring ICT
Of course, as with Michael Gove, this "evidence" of embedding is not shared even though everyone working in the field knows that the evidence from Becta when the Coalition Government took power was that no more than 30 per cent of English schools were confident with technology. However, there is no doubt that the Government now recognises the effectiveness of ICT for learning.
Asked by Lord Willis about the impact of e-learning resources on children's learning, Lord Hill replied: "The DfE reviews existing educational research and commissions its own studies. Overall there is a strong body of evidence linking the effective use of technology to improvements in education. Schools that take a systematic and planned approach to using technology to support education achieve better outcomes with technology than other schools. Strong patterns of impact are also found from pupils’ use of technology to support study at home.”
While others might be tempted to view these statements cynically until they see them put into practice, the e-Learning Foundation's Valerie Thompson is convinced of their significance. "There is a very clear line of statements coming out of the Goverment saying that they fully acknowledge that ICT has a crucial role to play in driving attainment and closing the attainment gap. They are very clear that the pupil premium is the mechanism to help disadvantaged pupils and that schools can spend their pupil premium on ICT. They are not saying you must spend the premium on this but if you choose to do so it is consistent with the evidence, and I think that's the important step forward.
She revealed that (Lord) Jonathan Hill had changed his mind over the course of a month. Before that point he said he had not been convinced by the evidence. "I think something has changed in the wind," she added. "It's taken them a year to come around but I am just pleased that we are starting to see that the light is dawning for them."
Gove 'got rid of everyone who knows about this stuff''
The secretary of state had "got rid of everyone who knows about this stuff so people are scratching around trying to give him the back-up he needs", she continued. "The thing about the education department is that it's at odds with the work of other departments – like superfast broadband, the race to get online by 2012 getting prime ministerial support and Martha Lane Fox being very high profile. And then you have this department [DfE] which is looking after our children and it's completely off the agenda."
Many school suppliers have also been adversely affected by the ICT policy void and the axing of BSF. RM, one of the companies already contracted to service BSF schools for a number of years, has just issued another profits warning, a relatively short time after announcing significant redundancies to make £5 million savings.
John Blankley, Toshiba's manager of its capital investment programme, says, "While the James Review received mixed feedback across all industries, for those involved specifically with ICT, the post-BSF schools market remains one of confusion and conflicting influences. As new funding models are formulated and the balance between centralisation and local choice is established, the issue of reduced budgets still raises the most concerns.
"From Toshiba’s perspective our emphasis on quality and reliability has always made us the most attractive proposition, whether assessed from a capital or operating expenditure perspective. Our priority remains the same, irrespective of policy changes, and that is to ensure that our products perform all day, every day in supporting teaching and learning."
It does not seem long ago that the future for technology enhanced learning in schools and colleges was relatively clear and in line with government policy. There was a Harnessing Technology strategy, ring-fenced funding, and an agency – Becta – responsible for supporting and overseeing the implementation of that policy. There was also a capital programme for schools with transforming learning at its heart. The purpose of this was to engage more young people in stimulating, effective learning, and the design of learning environments by rebuilding or remodelling was intended to support this vision. And it was prioritised for failing schools, to support children who were being let down by the system.
What a difference a year makes!
That has now been turned on its head. What a difference a year makes! Gone is the strategy, agency, ring-fenced funding ,BSF and the National College's related leadership programme that tackled ICT (watch out for the new EXite Leadership Programme).
As the departing boss of Partnerships for Schools (PfS) Tim Byles commented to Education Investor magazine, “There has been a policy shift. PfS is no longer an agency concerned with transformation of learning environments but is concerned with the procurement of services to address building repair and renovation.”
As if to pile on the hurt, a recent PfS briefing for school suppliers revealed that the capital spend per Academy pupil for ICT had been cut from £1,450 to £800. And the new Teachers’ Standards for English schools, launched with a video of happy children with pencils and teachers at blackboards, don't even require ICT capability of teachers. It was included in the last standards, and in those for Scotland, Wales and Unesco.
Any Department for Education worthy of the name should have a policy, let alone a strategy, for ICT for learning. Especially in a country with the economic challenges of the UK, one that urgently needs to create new revenue streams and industries. To do this requires innovation, drive, a highly skilled, adaptable workforce and an education system infused with the pedagogies that ensure that emerging generations are capable of meeting the new challenges.
Policy makers need to forget their 'don't mention learners or learning' edict
That politicians in the education field are reluctantly acknowledging this after more than a year in office is a start, but they will need more than the "For god's sake don't mention ICT or they'll be asking for money next" which seems to have been the main inhibitor so far. They also need to forget the "don't mention learners or learning" edict that is said to be currently circulating among policy makers. While good teaching is essential, it's the unlocking of learning which has been shown to drive the most successful schools in recent years.
In a relatively short time, Michael Gove has made unprecedented changes for English schools and many may benefit. But the absolute failure, so far, to exploit the power of ICT for learning, even for the hallowed synthetic phonics, will, if unchecked, appear startling in restrospect. Not just in terms of engaging young people for whom it is such an important part of their everyday lives, but also for the potential it holds for the very savings which the Coalition government purports to hold dear.
The Education World Forum in London in January attracted record numbers of international education ministers who wanted to catch up with what's happening in UK schools, particularly with learning with technology. If Michael Gove had stayed on after his brusque welcome lecture, he could have caught up with an impressive presentation by one of his heroes, Sir Michael Barber, and Michael Fullan, the Ontario-based expert on educational change. Michael Fullan, asked about the role of ICT, replied, "I am not going to say anything much about ICT except one point, and that is everything I say is accelerated by good ICT – everything. It accelerates the instructional practice; it accelerates the access to data. It accelerates the sharing of practice through digital means of what’s working and what’s not working."
Michael Fullan has since expanded on this in his excellent paper "Choosing the wrong drivers for whole system reform". While technology itself is not a driver, he does not hold back on its importance: "Fortunately there are some signs and, more importantly, some developments that indicate that pedagogy is seeking the driver’s seat. The main policy document from the US gets it right – Learning Powered by Technology. The essential idea is to get the right learning embedded in the technology – a task that many of us are working on these days."
'We have to push this in the face of the old guard and say, "Answer that!"'
Perhaps the last word should go to Valerie Thompson who, with her allies, has been working so hard to get ICT for learning back on to the Government agenda. "It has taken a year but we are definitely seeing signs that the ministers have finally come to their senses and recognised that the evidence is there. I think it might have been helped by the fact that the Sutton Trust report came out and gave technology a thumbs-up with its toolkit for the pupil premium.
"It might not even matter. I think what they [the politicians] are saying is, 'We don't know anything about technology, we don't even know much about education; what we've done is push everything out to schools. They know best.'
"What we have to do as campaigners and lobbyists is to point to the schools who have 'got it' and are using it to incredible effect and are getting stunning impact measures, making a difference to disadvantaged kids – because this stuff really does work when it's used properly and in an exciting way. And we have to push this in the face of the old guard and say 'Answer that.' Because there will be this attainment gap league table and the schools that have massive differences between their poorest and richest children are going to have to come up with some answers. Because we are all going to shame them aren't we? They will be directly challenged: 'How can you possibly allow this to happen in your school? what have you got? What have you spent the money on?' And if they have spent it on a new staffroom they've got a problem."
A conference run by the e-Learning Foundation on November 23 in the Manchester Conference Centre will explore these issues with speakers including former schools minister Lord Jim Knight, Brian Lightman of the ASCL and David Wootton of the Independent Academies Association together with headteachers who are leading the way on 1:1 access to ICT.
Bob Harrison is an education consultant who works with the National College for Leadership of Schools and Children's Services and Toshiba UK. He runs Support for Education and Training.