Education policy is undergoing radical change but will schools follow, asks Bob Harrison
Abi JamesAbi James shows the new 'CapturaTalk' Android app“Moving from a state-led (local and national) system to a school-led system – a painful transition.” Statement of fact or understatement?

There was a marked contrast between two events I attended last week that were linked by this quote from Vanessa Pittard, the Department for Education policy lead on STEM and former director of evidence and evaluation with the now defunct national ICT agency Becta.

Early in the day she had addressed a small, but eclectic gathering of 40 delegates at the MirandaNet Fellowship's “Education Futures” conference at the University of Bedfordshire. “Whilst the department and ministers do not need to be convinced about the potential of technology to improve teaching and learning, the days of government control, intervention, ring-fenced funding and telling schools what they have to do is over,” said Dr Pittard.

She suggested that the Government's “hands off” approach to ICT policy is clearly illustrated by its approach to the changes to the ICT National Curriculum. This commenced with the Michael Gove speech at BETT 2012, his first to focus on ICT after some 18 months in office, and resulted in the British Computer Society and the Royal Academy of Engineering being commissioned to co-ordinate the rewriting of the ICT programme of study to place a greater emphasis on computer science at all key stages.

Disquiet in university teacher education circles

Vanessa Pittard provided further evidence of the “school-led system” approach to policy making with reference to the transformation of initial and in-service teacher training with the establishment of teaching schools and School Direct which is causing disquiet in university teacher education circles. And the rate of change show no signs of slowing down with the news of further deep cuts at the Department for Education (see "DfE cuts 1,000 jobs"), which raises the question of whether the department can retain what little expertise with ICT for learning it already has, including Vanessa Pittard.

Judging by the anguished reaction of some of the MirandaNet delegates this "no pain no gain" moment in education policy seems a lot more painful for some than others. And raises questions even about the future of these kinds of events.

Many people in the education technology community are familiar with the personality and sheer life force behind the MirandaNet set-up, the honorary professor of education at Bedford University Christina Preston. Her insight into the issues and her network of contacts in the field seem light years ahead of her professorial colleagues at Bedfordshire.

MirandaNet is predicated on the principles of teacher-led research and reflective practice and this was infused in the activities over the three days of the event. The principles were also reflected in the presence of the commercial sector. Like Iris Connect, an audio-visual classroom observation system which allows teachers and trainee teachers to review their practice and the practice of others in a safe and non-threatening way. This is becoming a welcome solution for staff development in many schools.

There was also great interest in CapturaTalk (£40), a speech-to-text and text-to-speech assistive technology program from IanSyst. This was demonstrated by Abi James (see photograph above) and is now available on all Toshiba digital tablets.

One of the aims of this three-day conference was to “engage with the developers of technology and policy makers”, but as Vanessa Pittard clearly pointed out the policy makers will be the schools. And how many of them will be able to afford to release teachers for three days? So even academic organisations like MirandaNet, which work with teachers are not likely to remain unaffected by the changes. If schools truly become the policy makers, will future efforts for these organisations lie in attracting substantially more teachers to their membership so that might lead to more dynamic research outcomes?

Later that day Vanessa Pittard joined the panel at the Royal Society for the dissemination of the findings of a £12 million Technology Enhanced Learning research project (see above), directed by Richard Noss from the Knowledge Lab at London University's Institute of Education.

The report “System Upgrade – realising the vision for UK education” was warmly welcomed by minister of state for universities and science David Willetts MP as he opened the event for about 350 delegates from universities, industry, schools and colleges as well as former secretary of state for education, Charles Clarke MP, the minister credited with every classroom having an interactive whiteboard.

He posed the question “To what extent can the use of technology raise educational standards and what should be done to maximise their benefits?” to a panel consisting of Vanessa Pittard, Alison Wolf (of the Wolf report), Richard Brookes, director of strategy with Ofsted and Celia Hoyles from the London Knowledge Lab.

Needless to say, all panel members felt the use of technology to enhance teaching and learning was helpful. However, none could really pin down any causal link between technology and improvements in standards. And while schools like the ESSA Academy in Bolton are often used as examples, and there is an abundance of anecdotal evidence and case studies, there is little hard evidence of a direct link between the two

At least Vanessa Pittard could have pointed to the ImpaCT studies she directed when she was at BECTA which probably still provide the best evidence available.(if you can find them in the DfE archive).

Some suggested that trying to link technology to raised standards is the wrong question and the TEL report reminded us how Michael Gove MP opened his BETT speech with these words: “Almost every field of employment now depends on technology... each new technological advance has changed our world and changed us too. But there is one notable exception. Education has barely changed”

So perhaps the more relevant question for the academics of MirandaNet and the Teaching and Learning Research programme to address is why is it that education has not changed at the pace of every other aspect of our digital lives? And what remains to be done?

Mirandanet "Exploring Education Futures"
System Upgrade Report 
Technology Enhanced Learning 
See also "The wrong question"  

Bob HarrisonBob Harrison is an education consultant who works with the National College and chairs the teaching schools’ New Technologies Advisory Board. He runs Support for Education and Training 

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