The SWGfL conference tackled ICT cuts head on, with Tanya Byron giving a lead

Professor Tanya ByronProfessor Tanya Byron: moral panic on technologyProfessor Tanya Byron is perhaps best known for working with recalcitrant children in the BBC's The House of Tiny Tearaways. Her next target, she revealed in a sparkling keynote presentation to the annual SWGfL (South West Grid for Learning) conference in Bristol, is a more difficult subject – beleaguered education secretary Michael Gove MP.

Professor Byron, author of the respected Safer Children in a  Digital World report on e-safety, has been invited to give a three-hour presentation on ICT and learning to Michael Gove. And she asked SWGfL delegates to provide her with classroom feedback for her meeting via a dedicated email address (here).

It will be a tough job representing a community dismayed by the hijack of schools’ £100 million Harnessing Technology funds and the disarray surrounding the axing of a major source of schools ICT, the Building Schools for the Future programme.

The feedback from delegates was clear. They felt that Gove’s cavalier attitude to ICT funding, combined with the lack of any expressed policy on ICT for learning, indicated a worrying lack of understanding and a threat to the funding ecosystem that has, so far, supplied schools with safe, dependable broadband connections and sufficient ICT equipment and materials.

'He kept pressing on academic rigour, getting back to what we learnt when we were kids'

Tanya Byron revealed that, when talking to Gove about technology and learning, he “kept pressing on academic rigour, getting back to what we learnt when we were kids, getting them to understand things that we were taught”. The word rigour, she went on, means “credible and cogent, valid and believable... appealing to the intellect and to the powers of reasoning”. “If we take that and think about how we apply that to children and young people, what appeals to their intellect and their powers of reasoning is technology. Children use technology for communication, for fun, to play and for learning.”

There was commitment to technology, she said, and she was pleased to see that the Government will continue to support the UK Council for Child Internet Safety (UKCCIS). But she warned of a technology backlash. Even US President Barack Obama, in whose presidential campaign technology and social networking played such an important part, had recently made remarks about young people being distracted by their iPods, iPads, X-Boxes and PlayStations. She felt concerned, she said, because she “spends a lot of time trying to get people at policy level to think about how technology can enhance learning, can engage learners and can actually increase what Michael Gove is chasing now which is academic rigour.”

She continued: “In fact it has been very unhelpful because he’s joined a whole kind of queue, a history of individuals and groups who have allowed themselves to immerse in a moral panic when a new technological advance comes along and have been so busy talking about what is wrong, and how it’s going to change things for the worse, haven’t really thought about how it will make things better.”

Technology was just as important for pedagogy as for ICT as a subject in school, she added. The pedagogy was "the bit about using technology to enable children to learn to create, to develop their ideas, to create content to share informatio,n to work in global partnerships with kids and young people in schools and education establishments across the world, exciting incredible opportunities that they have – that I, as a child, didn’t have".

'In some schools kids can't play conkers; in some they can but have to wear goggles.'

It was a bravura presentation, witty and warm, and the focus rarely left the well-being of children, and the development of a risk-averse culture which constrains children to the point where their "radius of play" has been reduced by 87 per cent over 20 years. "We have lots of examples of how we have more children being admitted to A&E for minor injuries than ever seen before because kids do not know how to fall, because they are not allowed to climb in case they fall," she said. "It's ridiculous. Having a scab and a bruise was a badge of honour when I was a kid. In some schools kids aren’t allowed to play conkers; in some they can but they have to wear goggles. In some schools you’re not allowed to play 'kiss chase' as it is deemed inappropriate. In many schools normal playground scrapping between children is seen as bullying and children are not allowed to interact in ways that help them learn social skills."

Doug DickinsonDoug Dickinson: inspiring keynoteThis fear of risk-taking, when it comes to ICT, is just as dangerous, she warned. Holding technology back from children means that they don't develop their own confidence and awareness of danger.

Tanya Byron's message to Michael Gove so far is pretty direct: "You’ve cut half of the Harnessing Technology grant. Please think about how that’s going to impact on schools, what is that going to mean in terms of connectivity. Does it mean that schools in rural areas will struggle to be connected because the cost is going to be prohibitive for them? Does it mean that other schools will shop around to get connectivity which actually may be cheaper but may not offer the same levels of filtering, the same levels that you would expect to come into your school to enable your students, your learners, to benefit from that connection and from the learning that you can give them?

"I’m also going to encourage him to think about how technology is enabling children to learn. One of my kids has learning difficulties. He’s dyslexic. He has learned to read through gaming because of the hypertextuality and the narrative of the gaming. He learned to read in a way that then enabled him to generalise his skills across to books. And because kids with dyslexia have tracking problems, gaming is a very useful way of teaching them to read because they don’t have to track in a linear way; they can track all over the screen and it enables them to pick up the phonemes and actually build words in their minds."

She would also talk to Michael Gove about video games and learning, she said, and discussed an experiment she recently conducted in lessons on urban development. One group had an inspirational teacher using quality resources while the other used the SIM City computer game. "No prizes for guessing the kids who learnt the retained the most not only at two weeks but at three months, but also enthusiastically wanted to continue learning about urban development," she said. "It was the kids that played SIM City. It seems to me that if we want to inject fun and a little bit of anarchy into a classroom, if we want to give kids a little bit of power and control over how they learn things and how they do things, it's seen as not being academically rigorous and that concerns me."

Dear Tanya, please tell Michael Gove...

It was a concern that was echoed in the audience feedback for Michael Gove. The key points coming from the floor for Tanya Byron were:

  • "The focus on structure and not on quality of learning and research outcomes will lead to chaos."
  • "Gove’s team should listen to learners – they are our inspiration, your inspiration and they should be the Government’s inspiration too.”
  • "Decisions appear to be made from political spite and anti-Labour bias – I don’t have a political bias, I’m just gunning for the kids in my school”.
  • “I think what has become abundantly clear is a complete lack of strategy across the board, what you teach, how you teach it, how you connect, what equipment you need, how you future proof it. We need a strategy."
  • "Does Michael Gove actually recognise that there’s an incredible amounts of momentum that’s being generated in the learning of our children across the nation through ICT?
  • "I teach a group of children around 10 but they are severely autistic. They don’t have language and ICT is such a powerful tool now. They’re never going to be able to express themselves on how important it is to them, but could you pass that message on their behalf?"
  • "We’re teaching children with autistic spectrum disorders and I teach children with profound and multiple learning difficulties and ICT is such a big part of their school day. It's their communication, it's their voice and, with all the cuts in some schools, it could be taking their voices away. It's such an important part in our curriculum."
  • "Can you ask Michael Gove how often he reads the academic research and the rigorous academic research that you and others have done and may I make a suggestion that he spends half a morning a week doing that?"
  • "I’m network manager at a secondary school and I would like to ask MG how he expects multi million pound business to run without considerable IT investment?"
  • "ICT has enabled children in primary schools to become very independent, creative and collaborative over the years and I feel those are skills they take on to secondary schools that they benefit from and obviously further on into the work place and more so than knowing the names of the kings and queens of England, could you ask when George I ascended to the throne and see if he remembers.  The children will continue to be independent learners, creative and collaborative learners out of the school if we don’t give it to them within school and school just then becomes more of an irrelevance to them.
  • "Persuade MG and spread the idea that when learning is fun it’s the best type of learning as I can’t help believe that MG is suspicious that if learning is fun it cannot be real learning and it has to hurt in some way. I think we need to convince people that when learning is fun it’s the best learning."
  • "The Gove team should bring in the best education leaders to develop strategic leadership of ICT."
  • "Care should be taken with cuts to ensure that creative education software creators, who are also contributors to exports, are not damaged."

Just as the cuts had dominated conference conversations at the London Grid for Learning event the previous week, they did so at the Bristol SWGfL too. Ironically, the event demonstrated the very aggregation of costs and value that the Regional Broadband consortia have achieved for schools. Delegates were treated to three inspiring keynotes – Tanya Byron, Doug Dickinson and Sir Bob Geldof – and the seminar stream was packed as presenters shared good classroom practice and new developments.

'It might be low priority for Michael Gove but it's high priority for us'

Delegates were also alarmed at the nature of the cuts and how they were made. For example the description of the first £50 HT million as "low priority" ICT money. "It might be low priority for Michael Gove but it's high priority for us," said one indignant headteacher.

The language used for the second £50 million snatch – "allowing schools to reconfigure their broadband and IT infrastructure projects onto a more sustainable funding model" – had a similar, infuriating effect. "That means the absolute opposite," said one observer. "It actually poses a direct threat to schools' connections to dependable, safe, filtered broadband services. It exposes the ignorance of the people making the decision."

There were similar reactions from the numerous school suppliers making up the exhibition element of the SWGfL event. A number of companies said they were already experiencing a cooling of interest from potential school customers because of worries over funding. And they expected it to get worse as the cuts intensified.

Sir Bob  Geldof Sir Bob Geldof (pic Paul Groom)It was left to Sir Bob Geldof to round off the day, starting with an introductory quip: "I was talking to Michael Gove this morning and it's good that I've come here because… you're fired." Geldof, who has business interests in technology for schools, reckoned that the country was already in a "double-dip recession", and that he thought the cuts "entirely misguided". However, he warned that it wasn't enough to get angry and complain: "Go to them, the Government, with a solution not a protest. A cost solution."

One of the challenges for Tanya Byron will be how to breach the ICT generation gap to demonstrate just how much learning has changed for the current generation. And that doesn't just affect politicians. She described her own challenge when she canvassed her children and their friends about their thoughts on "digital literacy" and "digital citizenship", concepts that baffled them. "Don't you just mean literacy and citizenship?" they chortled.

It's a significant problem, and one that UK digital champion Martha Lane Fox mentioned as she launched her "Manifesto for a Networked Nation" with comments about politicians' lack of understanding and use of technology.

The consensus from the SWGfL attendees was, however, pretty straightforward. They have absolutely no problems with academic rigour. What concerns them is rigor mortis, the disengagement that learners experience when learning ossifies and fails to reflect the realities and communication tools of their own daily lives. It's clear to the education community but not, it seems, to politicians who appear to want to turn the clock back in a highly competitive, technological world.

More information

South West Grid for Learning:
Harnessing Technology Cuts – Have Your Say
Tanya Byron email address for feedback for Michael Gove - This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

Northern Grid for Learning:
Have Your Say – including exemplar letters for local MPs and the secretary of state

London Grid for Learning
CEO Brian Durrant talkking about savings on Radio 4

Bob Geldof photo: Paul Groom

Doug Dickinson's blog

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