Schools may have new freedoms, but national leadership on ICT is weak, warns research by John Galloway

Nick Gibb MPNick Gibb MPThe Coalition Government brought a big shift in ICT policy for education. From a position of active strategies, streams of guidance, heavy investment in connectivity, research and equipment, to a touch so light as to be barely perceptible.

The recent white paper, "The Importance of Teaching", emphasises standards for frontline teaching, with ideas about what the curriculum might contain, but scant reference to how they might teach, or with what resources. ICT has one mention – in relation to procurement. This is no oversight. Why the big change? And a recurrent fear among those consulted is worrying – they simply don't fully understand the importance of ICT.

A set of three simple questions were put to a number of leading figures involved in ICT for learning (the full set of questions and answers can be downloaded here) and three to schools minister Nick Gibb MP. While the Department for Education emphasised schools' new freedoms (see below), the other responses raised a range of worries.

Jim KnightJim KnightFormer Labour schools minister Jim Knight (now Baron Knight), believes that the current education ministerial team "lacks an enthusiasm for its [ICT's] potential" and "does not see ICT as a strategic enabler". He thinks it's a situation exacerbated since it "out-sourced" its thinking in this area to BECTA and "lost in-house appreciation of its importance".

Brian Lightman, general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders agrees. "It is clearly not a government priority," he says.

Annika SmallAnnika SmallOthers, such as Annika Small, former boss of ICT in education thinktank Futurelab and a member of the 21st Century Learning Alliance, believes the issue is more deep-rooted. "There is a fundamental lack of understanding in government about the potential of ICT to transform learning," she says.

Or perhaps it is a shift in perception of the balance of activities in education, the one between "teaching" and "learning". Nick Gibb replied to enquiries from NAACE, the ICT consultants organisation, saying, "We do not want to over-emphasise the role of ICT in education – excellent teaching for pupils remains the key to success." However, he included an acknowledgement that "ICT can be a powerful tool to support good teaching where it is used and managed well".

Others are less concerned about the ommission of ICT from the white paper because they feel that ICT is sufficiently embedded in schools for them to make their own decisions and not wait for national initiatives. Professor Stephen Heppell suggests it is a sign of how embedded technology has become in schools. "I don't think the lack of a mention of ICT signals a lack of awareness of its importance," he says. "The document doesn't mention furniture or pencils either - but these, with ICT, are all taken-for-granted essentials in learning."

Elizabeth Hartnell-YoungElizabeth Hartnell-YoungIt's a view that Australian researcher Elizabeth Hartnell-Young supports, suggesting that "ICT is a resource rather than a substitute for good teaching". "The focus of the White Paper is on structural reforms and basic principles of quality teaching," she says, Dealing with specifics was not its purpose.

The paucity of research to support claims about the effectiveness of ICT is a point picked up by Ray Barker, director of the industry organisation the British Educational Suppliers Association (BESA): "One of the problems with an argument for the power for ICT is that we have little hard evidence for ICT improving standards. We all know it is powerful in a variety of contexts (SEN for example) and it works in a variety of contexts (interactive whiteboards have transformed what goes on in primary classrooms) but it is still difficult to prove with statistics."

'Great teaching, strong leadership and full parental engagement – ICT is invaluable in all three'

The importance of ICT right across schools is also emphasised by Jim Knight. "A successful education needs great teaching, strong leadership and full parental engagement in their own child’s learning," he says. "ICT is an invaluable tool in all three."

Brian Lightman also sees ICT as having a breadth of roles in schools, believing that "ICT is of huge importance to teachers and students. It is an essential tool in the classroom". He points out that ICT "helps students to consolidate their learning  and carry out research" and is "key to effective administration, and communication with parents". He also believes that it is fundamental to adult life: "It is absolutely essential that all school leavers possess strong skills  in ICT which they will need in almost any kind of employment."

It is the impact on teaching and learning that Annika Small believes needs greater recognition. She says that ICT is a powerful tool: "One that young people are already using to extend their knowledge and interests; to create and share their own content; and to connect with people from across the world as well as next door.

"If we ignore ICT as a teaching tool, the chasm between learning in schools and outside the classroom will only widen. Schools will become increasingly irrelevant to young people, we will miss the opportunities afforded by ICT to create positive, meaningful and authentic learning environments and we will nurture a generation who are ill-prepared to cope with – and contribute to – a rapidly changing, complex global society."

These are themes which are echoed by Jim Knight: "At the heart of embedded use of ICT is a pedagogy that embraces the way in which children use technology out of school, especially as the use of personal devices increases."

'ICT a catalyst that allows new models of learning to be effective. Nothing else can'

Such engagement could include the use of social networking tools to connect with children in far away places. "Learning is going global," he points out. "Schools are using ICT as a key plank to enable children to share projects, science data, poetry and much more. Yesterday's once-in-a-lifetime pen-pal exchange has become today's ongoing inter-nation shared project."

Stephen HeppellStephen HeppellProfessor Stephen Heppell, points out that the impact of ICT is greater than simply connecting people in distant places: it is changing the way we learn. "Perhaps most importantly we seem to be, globally, moving on from the old productivity model of factory schools to an education system that values ingenuity and problem solving," he says. "China is making huge and exciting changes in that direction. ICT is the catalyst that allows those new models of learning to be effective. Nothing else can."

It is this transformational attribute of ICT that Elizabeth Hartnell-Young believes could have been picked up in the White Paper, aspects such as "enabling teachers to learn from each other through virtual learning communities", and "having 24/7 access to high-quality online curriculum resources and materials, and tools for their creation".

At a more strategic level Brian Lightman would like to have seen "clarity about how the strategic leadership of ICT will operate in order to ensure interoperability between systems and institutions, a continuing commitment to online reporting and a vision for how schools might access professional support in the context of the demise of many LA-run services".

While Jim Knight suggests that it is not only what happens in school, but also beyond, that needs to be considered. "Ideally there would have been some discussion of the changing nature of the labour market," he says, "the demands of employers and how education needs to change to meet those needs."

Schools must make their own decisions on ICT, says DfE

However, it was the response of the Department of Education to a slightly different set of three questions to schools minister Nick Gibb MP (he turned down a request for an interview on ICT for learning), that gives a very clear message to schools why they need to promptly take firm control of their ICT, if they haven't already. The Department isn't interested; curriculum, learning and teaching and procurement are now matters for schools. Here are the questions to the minister, and the responses from the department, in full:

John Galloway: "Does ICT have a significant role to play in our classrooms?"

DfE: “There can be no doubt that ICT has a significant role to play in supporting good teaching and learning. Becta's Harnessing Technology Survey in 2010 showed that 97 per cent of teachers use a computer in class, the highest position in Europe.

"We also know that there are high levels of learning platforms in schools - these connect the classroom to pupils' homes and increasingly allow online communication, discussion, and sharing of resources between teachers, pupils and parents. We want schools to take the decisions and make the choices that help the frontline as far as possible, rather than telling them centrally which ICT they should use and where they should use it. They are best placed to decide what works best for them.”

John Galloway: "What is the place of ICT in a curriculum for the 21st Century?"

DfE: “We believe that ICT is now well-embedded in teaching through a wide range of subjects. Use of the internet as a learning tool for example, is generally now second nature, and we know that over 99 per cent of all schools now have access to broadband internet.

“It is our intention to restore the National Curriculum to its original purpose – a core national entitlement organised around subject disciplines. A slimmed down National Curriculum will allow schools more freedom and time to build on the core entitlement to provide a rich educational experience for all their pupils and to continue to use their professional judgement to organise
learning as they see fit.

“We plan to consult a wide range of academics, teachers and other interested parties to ensure that our core curriculum can compare with those of the highest performing countries in the world. More details about our plans to review the curriculum will be announced shortly.”

John Galloway: "Is there a role for government in assisting the development of the use of ICT for teaching and learning?"

DfE: “Ministers see technology as playing an important role in schools, and that a successful institution is probably one which increasingly uses technology well, in raising standards; tackling disadvantage; improving efficiency; supporting e-safety; and communicating with the wider community. But we want there to be more choice and decision-making at the frontline wherever possible and, in particular, it is for school professionals to decide where and how technology can add the greatest benefit without a prescriptive view from the Department on what it sees as best deployment of technology.”

If you ignore the worrying implications for the national ICT infrastructe eco-system, and broadband services in particular (more in that soon), the DfE answers are good news for ICT-confident schools. The absence of unwelcome 'steers' on ICT is welcome. Professor Stephen Heppell puts it tactfully: "Personally I am just grateful that the White Paper didn't say anything negative. Less is more in this case."

More information

The full text of John Galloway's question-and-answer material for this article can be downloaded here
See also Sally McKeown's "Coalition hands-off on ICT – so where to for schools?"


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