Bob Harrison and Merlin John scan Becta staff transfers for signs of an ICT policy for schools
Coalition Government ICT policy watchers are reading the runes this week as the Department for Education (DfE) puts the final touches to negotiations expected to transfer around 60 of Becta’s 250 full-time employees to new homes including the DfE itself.
The transfers map to “retained functions” accepted by the DfE, and Becta staff strove to identify areas of vulnerability before negotiations began. The final phase came when director of the DfE’s schools resources group Dugald Sandeman addressed Becta staff about the transfers last Friday. And while Becta confirms that “key areas of Becta’s work will be continuing”, the union has reservations.
The agony for transferred Becta staff is that government departments continue to face drastic cuts in the Coalition Government’s current “slash and burn” culture. This is how Becta staff might move over on March 1, 2011: the DfE (38), the Learning and Skills Improvement Service (13), the Young people’s Learning Agency (7) and Partnerships for Schools (6).
Becta this week confirms that transfer agreement is at a late stage. A spokesperson said: “Since the closure announcement in May, discussions have taken place with relevant government departments and it has been confirmed that key areas of Becta’s work will be continuing.
Transferred Becta functions ‘offer real value to frontline services’
“The functions which will be transferred from Becta to the Department for Education (DfE) and the Department of Business Innovation and Skills (BIS) in the first quarter of next year, offer real value to frontline services and will provide the expertise required to help government shape future education policy.
“Areas that are confirmed for transfer include: policy; procurement (incorporating ICT Service frameworks); e-safety – safeguarding online; and technical, accessibility and environmental standards for ICT in schools. Discussions are ongoing to finalise the details for one or two other areas which may also transfer.
“Becta and government departments will be discussing the transfer of functions with staff during October including the transfer of associated staff. It is hoped that these processes will be finalised by early November.
A spokesperson for the DfE confirmed that when the decision was made to close Becta it was envisaged that “certain aspects of what Becta does would need to be retained by the department or by another body”. He added that the discussion and details were still being made and that an announcement would be made “in due course”.
The negotiations will bring to an end an extremely difficult time for Becta staff. Most have had to await the outcome of employment agreements. The majority of full-time people will be made redundant and will have to position themselves for a return to the jobs market, while others have had to await confirmation that they can be transferred elsewhere, a process known as TUPE (transfer of undertakings/protection of employment).
'Just how committed is the Government to ICT and the benefits it offers?'
While staff are pleased that some jobs will be saved there is disappointment about those that will not be and deep concerns about the Coalition Government's understanding of the importance of ICT for learning and teaching. Adrian Higginbotham is the Becta staff representative with the Public and Commercial Services Union (PCS). He commented: "The PCS as the recognised trade union within Becta welcomes the transfer of any functions of Becta's business to new employers, especially where this saves jobs for staff. However it is understood that the number of those staff who will be actually working on areas of business taken over from Becta will be less than half of those given the opportunity to move (the others will have to take on other roles). This is an issue of job security for those 30 (approximately) people who are not tasked with continuing Becta's legacy and begs the question 'Just how committed is the Government to ICT and the benefits it offers?'”
The clear implications of the “retained functions” are that the DfE accepts the need, and the responsibility, for much of Becta’s original remit, which raises questions about the rationale for Becta’s closure. But the potential dangers facing ICT services to schools – and there are many – can be seen by the fact that assistive technologies advice, online reporting and Academies support are understood to have been hasty, last-minute additions to the list of retained functions. Which begs the question “What has been left off?”
'Collapse of an RBC could have disastrous effect on school broadband customers'
While there have been concerns about whether there is enough expertise – people too – in post-quango government departments to handle schools’ ICT needs and policy development, there is even more concern about the responsibilities that might not have been included in the Becta “handover”. For example school broadband services and “interoperability” (ensuring compatibility of services offered to schools) which have been achieved by aggregation and the contractual muscle of the Regional Broadband Consortia rather than any Becta edict.
Although the £100 million Harnessing Technology funding snatched back by the education secretary – for other purposes including his Free Schools venture – might not have been earmarked for RBC services, they viewed the action as a clear downgrading of the profile of ICT and began to worry about their futures. And some schools have already reported that loss of the funding has meant they have had to claw back cash from elsewhere to make good the gaps.
A quick look around Broadclyst Community Primary School in Devon (pictured left), the first primary to become an Academy, reveals incredibly rich learning and teaching that is supported and extended by impressive ICT facilities with the most up-to-date software. This tight integration of learning and ICT requires a reliable and affordable broadband service, which is supplied by the South West Grid for Learning, an organisation that also has an admirable reputation for the e-safety work it carries out with schools.The collapse of just one RBC could have disastrous results on the schools it supplies with stable, secure broadband services. The failure to support this internet ecosystem is a huge risk for policy makers to take and there would be harmful political fall-out.
The issue of the Harnessing Technology funding is still causing offence however. Only last week deputy prime minister Nick Clegg MP falsely claimed that no money had been taken from other sources to pay for the Free Schools ‘movement’. Even though education secretary Michael Gove had issued a press statement announcing that £50 million of schools' Harnessing Technology funds would be diverted to Free Schools. And the previous week, visitors to a Westminster Forums event on Academies and Free Schools had been stunned by a damning review of research into the Swedish Free schools by Institute of Education researcher Dr Susanne Wiborg (see "The £50m flutter with Harnessing Technology cash").
As the backslapping of the Conservative Party Conference comes to an end the focus will once again sharpen on government performance rather than the political rhetoric. And the tension between the apparently doctrinaire belief that a schools “market’ will be determined by liberated school leaders, and the reality of the structural checks and balances that have been put in place to make ICT manageable for schools will become apparent.
In the absence of any tacit political acknowledgement of the importance of ICT for learning, school administration and helping to make the kinds of savings that the Coalition Government is looking for, the handling of the Becta transfers provides little reassurance. Schools and everyone involved in ICT for schools await the Coalition Government's October spending review with trepidation.