By Martin Littler
Re-reading A Passage to India, where E M Forster describes one of the mirror-walled Marabar Caves as “a bubble-shaped cave that has neither ceiling nor floor, and mirrors its own darkness... infinitely”, somehow made me think of Becta and the current furore.
Becta is correctly quoted as having been created in 1998. In fact its roots go back to the 1970s as the Council for Educational Technology (CET) which through the years metamorphosed into MEP, MESU and NCET before becoming Becta.
As a spritely youngster in the early 1980s it was responsible for the lively lead which the UK quickly established in all aspects of educational technology. It was tiny then but employed very talented people (as it still does). They took risks and organised national conferences, produced good software and advice and set up small but effective outfits like the ACE Centres, and the SEMERCs, some of which will survive Becta almost 30 years later.
Much of the local authority expertise, not to mention the Educational IT and Assistive Technology companies which have world-beating products today, can trace roots back to these Government (DES and DTI) initiatives in the eighties. My own company is just one among many.
'Becta got bigger, greyer, less agile, less energetic and much more cautious'
Like the rest of us, over the years Becta got bigger, greyer, less agile, less energetic and much more cautious. Quangos partly exist to shield Government from responsibility for decisions (think of NICE and expensive new cancer drugs).
Recently Becta seemed to have lost confidence in its own ability to organise and itself hid behind a wall of consultants (expensive, often from City accountants) who didn’t have any educational background or ICT industry knowledge. While the Communication Aids Programme (CAP) was brilliantly organised by a very small well led Becta team, in more recent programmes like Home Access, the bureaucracy has moved suppliers to tears and may yet do the same for users who really need the help.
The Becta procurement system seems (and is specifically designed) to ensure that no one is responsible for outcomes - as no one person chose those outcomes (and no single Becta staffer is entirely happy with what is eventually decided either).
'Sadly Becta had moved from energetic to sclerotic to necrotic'
No one who knows the talented and hard-working individuals immured in Becta can be happy about the devastating loss of jobs. Privately some have told me about their loss of scope for action, initiative and pleasure in what they did. Taking no risks is dull and frustrating (and a fatally risky course for any organisation). I hope that they quickly find senior positions in companies, local authorities and schools. Education will be the beneficiary.
When I think of how small CET and MEP were and how much they achieved and compare that with what 250 staff and an army of consultants manage now, I find it hard to fault Michael Gove’s decision to close Becta (but he must, somehow, preserve Home Access). Sadly Becta had moved from energetic to sclerotic to necrotic.
Nothing lasts forever. Dead men don’t fall through open windows. Becta did need a kick.
Martin Littler is CEO of Inclusive Technology Ltd. These views are his own, based on 30 years observing or working with or for Becta and its predecessors and do not represent the views of any organisation with which he is currently associated.