Debate on ICT for learning is more effective in the House of Lords than Commons, reveals Tony Parkin

Lord Phil WillisLord Phil WillisAre the messages about the need for clear government policy and effective action on ICT in schools finally getting through to the Coalition Government?

Following challenges to the recent Education Bill from Lords Phil Willis, Jim Knight and David Puttnam as it passed through the House of Lords, the government has promised to undertake a series of actions “to send clear messages that schools should be using technology to improve teaching within and beyond the classroom”.

Writing to Lord Phil Willis, Lord Jonathan Hill, under-secretary of state for schools, assures him that “we are working on plans to facilitate the spread of good practice, providing support for getting best value when buying technology products, funding a programme of continuing professional development and working with industry on standards to improve the the effectiveness and efficiency of systems”. (Downloadable copy of letter here.)

When education secretary Michael Gove MP spoke about innovative use of technology in his speech to Royal Society on June 29, he finally conceded that it is part of effective learning in schools, However, he has been seen as lukewarm on the issue. This has been reinforced by the policy vacuum surrounding the subject, with the Conservatives shunning requests for policy statements on this area since well before the election. And the rapid closure of Becta, alongside the curriculum changes linked to Ebacc, did much to reinforce the message that school ICT was now seen as of little or no importance. Now Lord Hill says he wants to reassure Lord Willis “that the Government strongly agrees with you on its importance and its enormous potential to support good teaching and to help raise standards”.

As ever, the stress is on school autonomy: “Through our reforms of the school system we are aiming to give schools greater freedom to drive their own improvement. This is particularly important when it comes to how they use technology. Advances in technology and how it is used continue at pace and by allowing schools to lead the way we allow them to innovate and keep abreast of the latest developments.”  The implication here seems to be that bureaucracy under the previous administration, including the work of agencies such as Becta, had stifled schools and restricted the pace of innovation rather than promoted and encouraged it.

Lord Jonathan Hill agrees: 'There is a role for central government'

More surprisingly perhaps, the letter goes on to say, “I do, however, agree that there is a role for central government.” This is new. So what could this role be? “We want to send clear messages that schools should be using technology within and beyond the classroom,” Lord Hil continues.

The focus on teaching, rather than learning, comes as little surprise from this government, and that the role is 'messaging', rather than activity, is perhaps equally predictable. There appears to be a fear of budget implications. But what is the message for schools? “They need to equip young people with technological skills and knowledge to meet the needs of further study and the 21st century workplace,” he reveals. Clearly the criticisms from the further and higher education sectors and from employers like Google's Eric Schmidt of the failure to produce sufficiently ICT-literate school leavers appear to have been getting thorugh to the DfE.

When it comes to describing a possible plan of action the language is, as usual, a little less forthright. “We are working on plans to facilitate the spread of good practice...” No one can criticise that aspiration, but 'facilitation' can mean many different things, including little or no action, let alone funding support.

Similarly “providing support for getting best value when buying technology products” also has a chequered history, with some government procurement schemes being heavily criticised for failing to do just that. The role of Becta in negotiating some price advantages for schools under the previous administration was recognised, and raised as an issue at the time of proposed abolition. There is a suspicion that some procurement support from the Coalition Government might reassure schools that they will not be worse off due to the cutting of this Becta activity.

Expect the next Coalition news on ICT and schools at BETT 2012

The phrase “funding a programme of continuing professional development” is more promising, not least because it contains the hitherto unheard "F" word. Cynics point out that the limited funding allocation, recently announced, that permits further activity by the OU's Vital CPD programme to make itself self-sustainable (see "Teacher ICT support boosted by fresh Vital funding") could be the entire basis of that statement. Further clarification from the DfE should settle that. The final 'action' of “working with industry on standards to improve the effectiveness and efficiency of systems” would also fit with the cross-governmental agenda of trying to drive down costs by improving the IT systems to deliver public services.

The criticisms of Lords Willis, Knight and Puttnam of the Bill's lack of any mention of technology (worth reading in this withering rejoinder from Lord Willis)  are also acknowledged: “You and other peers have spoken powerfully of the part it can play and I want to reassure you that the Government strongly agrees with you about its importance...”

In closing, Lord Hill states “The Secretary of State plans to say more about his vision for technology in schools soon.” The recent announcement that this year Michael Gove is scheduled to formally open the BETT 2012 educational technology show in Olympia, London in January, is a clear indication of where and when we can expect to hear more.

More information

"The long wait – the Tories on ICT and learning" 
Michael Gove speech to the Royal Society on Maths and Science
"Policy Exchange agrees Government 'mistaken' on ICT" 
Lord Willis speaking on amendment to Education Bill
"M'luds and Luddites – politicians waking up to ICT?" 

Tony ParkinTony Parkin, former head of ICT development at the Specialist Schools and Academies Trust (The Schools Network) and now an independent consultant, describes himself as a 'disruptive nostalgist'. He can be contacted at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. or on Twitter via @tonyparkin

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