ETAG cartoon

Lack of political engagement brings Etag to a DIY route to effective tech in education
When a former top civil servant describes as "appalling" the absence of the Department for Education (DfE) from a public education ICT policy event involving the work of the Educational Technology Action Group (Etag), it's worth paying attention.

And when an OECD report, which found that massive investments in ICT for school have not improved learning, with a foreword, from PISA boss Andreas Scheicher, urging: “To deliver on the promises technology holds, countries need to invest more effectively and ensure that teachers are at the forefront of designing and implementing this change”, alarm bells should be ringing for anyone involved in UK education. (Artwork, Frits Ahlefeldt-Laurvig,

That's because this change may be happening in a minority of schools but is certainly not happening across the education system. And it's why Etag was created.

Minister welcomed Etag report then... nothing

Education minister Nicky Morgan MP had welcomed the Etag recommendations in her speech at the BETT 15 educational technology show back in January. But that was the last anyone has heard on this subject from government in eight months. 

Now Etag members have accepted that they have to undertake the work that would normally be the responsibility of the national leadership and the DfE. At a meeting in London this week its members agreed to contact and work with all the organisations and individuals identified in the report as the 'levers' who can move learning on so that schools can get maximum value from their ICT investments.

They will ask them how they have progressed since the Etag report was published, drawing their attention to the key elements relevant to them, asking for their highlights and successes, and also asking if there are remaining barriers that need addressing. That list includes the DfE and organisations like Ofqual, but also the many many schools and teachers who are making good progress. Engagement will be easy with those on the same journey, but is likely to be difficult with outfits like Ofqual without the weight of ministerial backing (something which has already been registered).

Lord BichardFormer 'mandarin' Lord BichardHowever, eight months isn't such a long time to wait for a response from the current crop of politicians. It took four years to get then education minister Michael Gove MP to admit he had been wrong to leave ICT to schools when there was such a need for national leadership and strategy. He had been brought to the Etag table by 'Bis' schools minister for skills and enterprise Matthew Hancock MP who had supported the Further Education Learning Technology Action Group (Feltag) in getting its recommendations accepted and supported. It seemed like a step forward at the time. But then he moved on, and there was an election.

Back in June this year, when he rounded off the debate at the Westminster Education Forum Keynote Seminar – "Using technology in education" – the former first secretary at the then Department for Education and Employment, Lord Michael Bichard, commented, "I think it’s appalling that the DfE aren’t here. It’s not the first of these conferences that I’ve attended and chaired and the department’s not been here." 

'Not sure that the old power bases are responding effectively'

Lord Bichard is immensely experienced in the ways of government. He served under education ministers Gillian Shephard and David Blunkett, and is now non-executive director with school leadership support agency The Key. He added, "I think there’s an underlying issue here which is quite important, which is that IT challenges. It challenges the way in which we’ve organised ourselves and behaved in terms of policy as well as in terms of practice. And I’m not sure that the old power bases are responding effectively to those kind of challenges because you can focus more on the user, you can cut across the traditional boundaries, you can personalise things in a way that was impossible before. And it’s about the old power responding to those changes - and they’re not"

Stephen HeppellProfessor Stephen Heppell at Westminster eventThis is Etag's biggest challenge, engaging with the national political and executive leadership to prompt purposeful strategy supported by action. Etag chair Professor Stephen Heppell doesn't have a lot to say about politicians other than that he recently showed photos of 11 former education ministers and a serial killer to a group of school leaders. They only recognised Kenneth Baker and thought the serial killer must have been a minister.

His perspective, which comes from working with educators worldwide for many years, is that learning and teaching is changing all over the world, with or without the support of government ministers and civil servants. He points out that the UK's lead in this field in the last century was because there was no one to copy and the future was imagined and committed to by politicians, industry, schools, teachers and universities. And that trust in history and judgement should continue to "make learning better for all".

He identifies with the comments from Andreas Schleicher, OECD director for education and skills at the launch of the OECD report Students, Computers and Learning: Making the Connection (see "Computers and Learning: Missing the Connection"). These included: “Technology is the only way to dramatically expand access to knowledge. To deliver on the promises technology holds, countries need to invest more effectively and ensure that teachers are at the forefront of designing and implementing this change."

Bob HarrisonBob Harrison: 'there is a blind spot in the DfE'This, of course, is exactly what Etag has been attempting to do with government. Its predecessor, Feltag, did achieve success in getting government recognition and support. Its chair, consultant Bob Harrison, points out, "The recent OECD report was a powerful reminder that schools need to think carefully about how technology is used and especially what skills teachers need and how old fashioned pedagogy will not make the most effective use of technology for learning.

"This reinforces why Michael Gove and Matt Hancock were right to ask a group of real experts for advice when they established the Education Technology Action Group. I simply fail to understand why the ministers and DfE have not yet responded to the many recommendations. This suggests that there is a blind spot in the DfE, and that the only 'experts' Nicky Morgan and Nick Gibb prefer are those who support their own views about teaching and learning."

Clear sense of frustration among educators

Gary SpracklenGary Spracklen: 'disappointed'There is a clear sense of frustration from the teacher members of Etag too, although they are more focused on supporting changes to practice. Gary Spracklen, senior lead of Osprey Quay Campus and director of change and innovation at the Isle of Portland Aldridge Community Academy, in Dorset, says, "As a school leader I am getting on with the spirit of the Etag report but I am disappointed that the report has been with the minister for eight months now and still we have had no response.

"I have a responsibility to make sure my learners take advantage of the learning opportunities technology presents and I cannot wait for the Department for Education's response to continue their progress. While my learners continue to break new ground and use cloud technologies, augmented reality and 3D printing to expand their horizons, I will leave the Department for Education to continue burying its head in the sand."

Dawn HallyboneDawn Hallybone: 'benefited'Dawn Hallybone is a deputy headteacher and ICT co-ordinator with Oakdale Junior School in East London who is well known for innovative uses of technology with her learners. She feels that it's fairly simple to grasp that technology is just a tool, but that with the appropriate pedagogies in place it can "harness learning to improve standards for teachers and learners". That's why she is "sorry to see that the Government has not taken on recommendations from the Etag report but instead seem to agree with the line that technology is somehow negative".

"I know from personal experience that technology can act as a motivator," she adds. "However, I am not naive enough to assume that this should be the only reason that teachers should use it. From my own CPD I have benefited from the use of technology, from taking part in MOOCs to online and offline debate via the world of Twitter and TeachMeets. The use of technology is no longer optional and should not be perceived as such – but that does not mean that it should be used all the time."

"It would be heartening to see Etag recommendations shared more widely. They should come as no real surprise to many educators. We need to ensure that our children and adults are equipped with all skills that they need, not just the one we may think they need. Fast and reliable broadband will help, as well as teacher training in the use of technology, readily available research evidence and the ability for all stakeholders to readily access data. These are key points that should be happening now.

"There are already lots of examples of this happening on a daily basis, but at the moment they are still pockets. We need to come together to share our stories more widely. This is what Etag has enabled."

'Assessment and accountability are crucial'

Peter TwiningOU expert Peter TwiningEtag has pulled together a wide range of experienced representatives from the sector. One of the academics is Peter Twining, professor of education (Futures) at the Open University: "Assessment and accountability are critical because they drive practice in schools," he points out. "They are also very difficult areas to change without the active support of policymakers (the DfE), regulators (Ofqual) and the inspectorate (Ofsted).

"Having said that, there is widespread recognition in many quarters that current paper-based exams do not adequately reflect aspects of what employers, politicians and the general public view as critical competences and attributes for being an engaged and productive citizen. Indeed, one of the major challenges for Ofqual is how to ensure that assessments are valid – in the sense of accurately reflecting students' learning – in a context in which there is growing evidence that digital technology changes what we do and how we do it, including how and what many students learn.

"One of the bright spots in all of this is the level of support from many staff within the awarding bodies and associated organisations (such as BTL) to move the ‘e-assessment’ agenda forward – which is reflected in the AQA’s recent publication, The Future of Assessment: 2025 and beyond. If only we had active support from the DfE, Ofqual and Ofsted, the title of that might have been 2020 and beyond."

A key organisation for professionals working with technology and learning is Naace. Its CEO is Mark Chambers who is also a member of Etag. "Leadership requires having a message and being able to communicate that message effectively to those who would follow," he explains. "Effective leadership requires having a valid experience to share.

"Etag is made up of organisations and individuals of proven experience with a clear vision and message. At one level, all government has to do is clearly endorse this so that, to those who would listen, the message of Etag that technology, used appropriately and managed effectively to support learning, is an entitlement for all young people in the UK.

Naace supporting by widening recruitment

Mark ChambersNaace CEO Mark Chambers"This endorsement would cost nothing but would reap significant benefit in highlighting to school decision-makers that learning technologies are not a 'poor cousin' to establishing coding clubs and resourcing one third of the computing curriculum, but are a priority in themselves.

"Although not using data from the UK, the OECD report from Andreas Schleicher is a clear wake-up call that the community should take heed of. Using technology can impact outcomes for young people, schools should have the whole-school management principles, the classroom management practices and the curriculum and pedagogical development in place that ensure this. If they haven't, of course, we should be asking, 'why not'? 

"To support the work of Etag, Naace is developing a Standards Library that schools, teachers, pupils and parents can access in order to compare their experience of technology enabled learning with what can be achieved. An advice line for schools is also being created to help develop effective practice, and a procurement advice line to help with the practicalities of that initial stage of investment. Of course, all of this will be more effective if what we are doing as a community of practice is known and if more make a decision to join the community contributing their experiences and expertise."

The words 'dead', 'horse' and 'flogging' come to mind

It's now more than five years on from the first days of the Coalition Government, when Naace and the rest of the UK's ICT in education community made their first overtures to the new crop of politicians – and were rebuffed. To the more cynical the words "dead", "horse" and "flogging" come to mind. And that's why the community that produced the Etag report is prepared to go out and do the work that the politicians are not.

Dominic SavageDominic Savage: 'deliver on the promises technology holds'What's remarkable is the positivity of those involved. In his work representing the UK's school suppliers, Dominic Savage has, like Stephen Heppell, engaged (or not) with all sorts of politicians over the years (even one openly referred to by his civil servants as "Dagenham" – because he was one stop short of Barking).

As director general of the British Educational Suppliers Association (Besa) he has learned to be circumspect, with a view to the long game. "The OECD report is 200 pages and deserves great attention," he points out. "It is a shame that the media seem only to have read the first paragraph or two before delighting in a bad news story that technology impoverishes education.

"Had they bothered even to read Andreas Schleicher’s foreword they would have seen the real arguments coming out. He asks whether “…we have not yet become good enough at the kind of pedagogies that make the most of technology; that adding 21st-century technologies to 20th-century teaching practices will just dilute the effectiveness of teaching.”

"For policymakers? Ouch! He argues that 'Technology is the only way to dramatically expand access to knowledge'. He reminds us that 'Technology can amplify great teaching but great technology cannot replace poor teaching'.

"Picking on just these three points, together with the report’s reminder about the importance of foundation skills, we see the essence of the debates that helped Etag draw the conclusions of its report. So as I read the OECD report I was finding reinforcement for our view that ministers should:

  1. "Make a genuine commitment to guaranteeing, and indeed forcing, the delivery of 'excellent broadband infrastructure' for every school;
  2. "Ensure we can 'deliver on the promises technology holds', through 'a convincing strategy to build teachers’ capacity'
  3. "Have a real debate about the 'kind of pedagogies' we need in education today; and be bold in proposing the systemic change to our education system that will doubtless be its conclusion."

The UK's educational technology community is resourceful and smart, but there has to be a serious question about how far it can succeed with entreating crusty institutions to stop blocking progress without clear backing from the Government. Perhaps Etag now needs to widen its net to investigate the value of the emerging opposition.

It's probably time to engage with the new Labour leadership. Jeremy Corbyn MP clearly has very different views on education, and his deputy, Tom Watson MP, revealed his own deep understanding of the value of ICT for learning many years ago at a lively Handheld Learning conference. Despite Labour's poor performance in this area since the days of Jim (now Lord) Knight – the last DfE minister to be wise to the potential of ICT – change is in the air. And there's also the new crop of Scottish MPs with their appetite for change (and the experience from their own endeavours with ICT). There are other horses to work with, and they don't need flogging. 

Naace offer for school leaders
Naace is offering 12 months free individual membership to any school leader who joins Naace in 2015.
It is also allowing schools purchasing a Whole School Membership in 2015 to register unlimited teaching staff to their school account.
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Artwork (above) based on illustration by Frits Ahlefeldt-Laurvig,,  Creative Commons, Flickr