By Maureen McTaggart
Stephen Crowne, boss of Government ICT agency Becta has launched a robust defence of his organisation, now a popular target in the press' pre-election 'quango shooting gallery'. Becta has been named in yet another report - this time a government-sponsored one - as an education and training agency that should be merged or abolished to rationalise services and save millions of pounds in public spendin
“Becta makes an important contribution to streamlining and improving the education system to the benefit of learners, employers and taxpayers." he said. "The report fails to recognise that Becta saves much more than it costs. Cutting its funding would not allow us to ‘do more with less’.”
He was responding to "Towards Ambition 2020: skills, jobs, growth", a report by the UK Commission for Employment and Skills (UKCES). Coming from the organisation set up last year to advise the government on how to make the UK a world leader in employment, productivity and skills, it pulls no punches.
The report’s authors believe there are at least 30 too many Government-funded bodies. And with each having its own different rules and requirements, they have made the UK training system too complex and cluttered.
The solution put forward in Section 7 of the 35-page document includes the merger into one body of all quality improvement agencies that have overlapping responsibilities "including Becta, the Learning and Skills Improvement Service, Standards Verification UK and the non-SSC elements of Lifelong Learning UK". The report says this should be followed immediately by a 50 per cent cut in their collective budgets and a progressive transfer of “the remaining quality improvement and workforce development funding to providers within three years to create sector accountability and better value for money”.
"Towards Ambition 2020" comes hot on the heels of September’s "How to Save £50 billion" report by the right-wing pressure group The Tax Payers Alliance and the Institute of Directors which not only recommended closing Becta, but also questioned its effectiveness in leading the government's investment in educational technology.
“How to Save £50 billion” accused Becta of having "negative consequences" for many schools and hindering an open and competitive market. It said money should be given directly to schools, which “would allow them to purchase equipment according to their needs”.
Not so, says Stephen Crowne. He admits it costs £50m a year to run Becta, but says the organisation is responsible for saving the education system “£250 million a year: a return of 500 per cent, with potentially more to come".
He continues: "Furthermore, the efficiencies gained by using technology have saved more than £1 billion worth of teachers’ time between 2005 and 2008 allowing teachers to teach and learners to learn.”
Alphabet soup of acronyms with 'unacceptable bureaucracy'
According to “Towards Ambition 2020", this group of quangos - an “alphabet soup of acronyms” - has put employers off becoming involved in training programmes and apprenticeships because “the bureaucracy is unacceptable”. And, without urgent action, the UK is in danger of failing in its ambition to become a world leader in employment, productivity and skills.
The report also recommends that representative organisations like the Institute for Learning (the professional body for the FE and skills sector) should become self-financing. In addition, rigorous accountability testing every three years would determine the future of all remaining education and skills quangos. Tests would be based on assessment of impact and value-added to the sector, and any quango that failed should be abolished or have its funding reduced.
Michael Davis, UKCES director of strategy and performance, said the changes would give more powers to employers, training providers and individual learners. “Why do we need all these organisations that apply and manage on behalf of employers? We are offering a less confusing landscape so providers are better able to respond to the needs of employers,” he added.
'Work valued by learners, parents, schools, colleges and partners'
Countering the arguments, Stephen Crowne expressed surprise that the commission appears unaware of Becta’s "specialist role in streamlining the business processes in education and skills to eliminate bureaucracy and in securing best-value deals for schools and colleges in their information and communication technologies procurement".
“We have a clear remit to lead the use of technology in education and know that our work is valued by learners, parents, schools, colleges and partners," he added. "For example, 95 per cent of parents think technology can help their children learn, while 16,372 schools (77 per cent) are signed up to Becta’s Self Review Framework to improve their use of technology, and over 80 per cent of teachers agree that technology has a positive impact. Local authorities view Becta positively and nine out of ten now use Becta frameworks when purchasing technology for schools.
“But our work is far from done. In 2008, 25 per cent of schools were considered to be using technology really well. We are working towards 80 per cent by 2011. We are also leading the Home Access programme. The pilots, launched earlier this year, have helped 10,000 low-income families get access to computers and the internet to help their learning. Over 270,000 will benefit from the national programme to be rolled out later this year. This is why Becta’s work is essential in providing real value for money - value to teachers, value to learners, value to parents and value to the economy”.
"How to Save £50 billion"