George Cole talks to Stephen Crowne about Home Access and Becta's future

Stephen CrowneBecta's Stephen CrowneJust before the opening of the BETT 2010 education technology show, education secretary Ed Balls announced the launch of the Home Access programme, a £300 million scheme designed to provide around 270,000 low-income families in England with a free laptop and internet connection (see interview with Becta’s Niel McLean).

Although press coverage was somewhat muted, it was a high-profile, dynamic start to 'BETT week'. led by prime minister Gordon Brown and also supported by Lord Mandelson.

At the Home Access launch Becta also released the result of a survey of parents who took part in the pilot scheme, which found that:


  • On average, children who received computers from the Home Access programme spent an hour more per week for learning online, compared with their classmates who already had the internet at home;
    81 per cent of parents believed that home access had increased their involvement in their child’s learning;
    81 per cent of parents (94 per cent in black and ethnic minority groups) said home access would improve their confidence in using technology;
    89 per cent of parents in Oldham and 69 per cent in Suffolk felt it would help them with their skills development;
    Parents reported using their Home Access computer to access public services online, and also search for employment.

Becta chief executive Stephen Crowne was on hand at BETT to go on the record about the Home Access programme – and the future for Becta.

George Cole: "The results from the pilot were very encouraging. What do you think the message of the scheme is?"
Stephen Crowne: The scheme is a way of changing the way people think about technology at home and removing the financial obstacles. ICT is a facility that is not just about helping children keep up with their learning, but it impacts right across family life. It brings benefits to both the children and their parents. It helps parents improve their own skills and supports their home life. It’s a virtuous circle."

George Cole: "The pilot helped around 12,000 families and the full scheme will assist an additional 270,000. But the government’s own figures suggest that at least one million children don’t have internet access at home (some put the figure at 1.5 million). That still leaves at least 700,000 homes without access."
Stephen Crowne: "It’s 700,000 in terms of [the] money [available], but how many families benefit depends on what packages they apply for. Someone might already have broadband for example. The key thing is that we give a major shake to the momentum of getting connectivity and facilities into homes."

George Cole: "Under the scheme, the computer is yours for life, but the free internet access expires after 12 months. How confident are you that most families will pay for access after the year?"
Stephen Crowne: "Once people have internet access they appreciate the advantages. There are tangible benefits for people going online. They can save money, for example, with internet shopping, and get discounts on their utility bills. All families face spending decisions and we are confident that the majority will maintain connectivity going forward."

George Cole: "Schools on the pilot played an important role in advertising the scheme to the target families. The administration and management was taken out of their hands, which is a good thing. But how do you ensure that schools deliver a consistent message and consistent levels of support?"
Stephen Crowne: "A lot of schools are already supporting home access. They see home access as being important. We are providing guidelines and support for schools. The most important thing schools can do is plan with some confidence – for example, if they are putting in a learning platform, they can assume they will reach most parents."

'We were told to expect 60 to 70 per cent take-up: we got more than 90, which is amazing'

George Cole: "What about supporting parental skills? Many parents will probably lack the confidence to use ICT."
Stephen Crowne: "Many schools already offer the opportunity for parents to learn computer skills and there are also the UK Online centres. Lots of local authorities also provide support, for example, through library services. There’s an important role for local authorities to coordinate support services for parents. What we saw from the pilots was great enthusiasm from the parents and we need to harness that."

George Cole: "The Home Access scheme caters for 7 to 14-year-olds, but what about students in their exam years?"
Stephen Crowne: "We chose the age range because we needed to narrow the scope of the programme. Second, these were key stages where we felt we could make the most impact. Older children tend to already have access, but we are keen to widen access."

George Cole: "Were you surprised by how many families were keen to take up the offer?"
Stephen Crowne: "We were surprised by the take-up. There’s a lot of suspicion around government programmes and people wonder whether there are strings are attached. We were told to expect a 60 to 70 per cent take-up, but we got more than 90, which is amazing. There was a sense of awe from the parents and that was important to us. Having access to the internet at home opens up vast areas of experience, which are not available in any other way. It’s an idea whose time has come and there’s a sense of cracking the digital divide."

George Cole: "The scheme differs from other in that you are not simply providing families with equipment – they shop for it themselves."
Stephen Crowne: People like having the choice and the shopping experience. The key thing is that you are a part of society and not separate from it. Our task force worked with industry and education on the pilot, and this was seen as the best way of reaching this group of families.

George Cole: "Could this format form a template for future schemes?"
Stephen Crowne: "This is a one-off intervention, designed as a way of tacking home access. It’s not an open-ended commitment."

'The evidence shows the importance technology plays in modern society'

George Cole: "No one knows the outcome of the general election, but the Conservatives have said they will reduce the number of quangos. What’s the case for preserving Becta -and are you confident you will survive any quango cull?"
Stephen Crowne: "It’s obviously not for me to pre-empt what any in-coming government might do. Becta exists to serve the government and that’s what we do. It’s entirely up for the Government to decide whether to support learning and technology. The evidence shows the importance technology plays in modern society. I’ve just come from the World Forum [Learning and Technology World Forum], where there was huge enthusiasm for technology. At the World Forum, the world was looking to this country and Becta.

"There’s a convincing story around technology and learning, and a huge amount of confidence in the educational value of ICT. Technology used in the right way delivers real learning gains. Technology is no longer something that’s nice to have, but something that is essential. But you don’t get the benefits of the technology, in terms of learning for young people, without effective leadership, and that’s the leadership role Becta plays by working with the industry and teachers. And we work with government when they are developing policies. We know the job isn’t done in the UK, and that only one third of schools are making the most effective use of the technology. This isn’t about technology for technology’s sake, but delivering the goals that the government wants.  We have a good track record and I’m confident about the future."

George ColeGeorge Cole is a freelance journalist who writes about technology and learning. A former teacher, he is also the author of The Last Miles, a book about the jazz musician Miles Davis, and runs The Last Miles website.