John Galloway talks to a passionate advocate for ICT and learning, Joan Walmsley
Baroness Joan Walmsley, Agent4change.netBaroness Walmsley: ‘A role for government to analyse industry needs’"I don't think you should always assume that just because something isn't mentioned that it means that there's some kind of plot against it," explains Baroness Walmsley, talking about the absence of ICT in the recent White Paper, The Importance of Teaching.

"The White Paper was suposed to be about the quality of teaching," she adds. "ICT is an important tool for teachers, but so are a lot of other things that aren't mentioned individually. I don't think it is sinister."

Although the Government is clearly resistant to being drawn in to discussions about the place of ICT in state schools, some members of the Coalition parties are not so reluctant. One such is Joan Walmsley, who became a Lib Dem life peer in 2000. While she stresses that she is a back bencher in the House of Lords, and does not speak for the Government, she does, unlike many of us, speak to them. So do they value the role of new technologies in teaching and learning? "I have raised the subject with Michael Gove and with Nick Gibb and I have not been given the impression that they don't believe ICT is important," she says.

'ICT is an enormously important tool for broadening the curriculum'

Baroness Walmsley, who trained as a teacher after leaving university, is Lib Dem spokesperson on children, schools and families in the House of Lords, co-chair of the back bench committee on education, families and young people and vice-chair of the all-party parliamentary group for children. She is a passionate advocate for the role of ICT in schools and has worked closely with the the British Educational Suppliers Association (BESA) over the years.

"ICT is an enormously important tool for broadening the curriculum," she believes. "It broadens the choice of subject. Say there are only a few people in one school and a few people in another school want to do a particular subject then connectivity will help them to do it," going on to give the example of teaching Mandarin through mediums such as teleconferencing or Skype. "One teacher could could serve half a dozen schools," she says.

She is pragmatic about what is needed to make such curriculum opportunities possible. "If we are moving to a less prescriptive curriculum, and trusting the professionalism of teachers more, then we have to give them the kit to be able to do it." It is not just staff who need access, she acknowledges, "The opportunity for getting on to the internet must be made available for all children, whether it is at home, or in the extended school, or the public library. It gives them the opportunity to explore the massive world of information out there."

However, finding things out is just one possibility that getting online provides. "To me it is a tool for working, leisure, creativity, and information," she says. "But it is also a tool for equality." This is something she feels strongly about, as her work with Unicef, the NSPCC, and SKVC Children's Trust (a charity for street children in India) demonstrates: "ICT gives us an opportunity for equality of opportunity, and that is a crucial thing."

For those with special needs and disabilities she sees that it can "enable children to do things that their bodies can't do", providing chances to "do the same things, enjoy the same things, achieve the same things" as their peers, and, importantly, "to achieve their potential". Something that she also feels extends to looked after children: "When the previous government brought in the right for them to have a computer at home and access to the internet, wherever they are fostered, it was a very good step in the right direction." It is, she feels, a way of addressing some of the problems they face. "Because of the trauma they have suffered, it is not surprising they don't achieve as much as other children," she adds. "It is the corporate parents job to try and address this."

'ICT is one of those things that everybody should have a basic grasp of'

She also believes that technology has a role to play in bringing all homes and schools closer together. "Anything that allows the school and the parents to work more closely together is a good thing," she says, recognising that some parents have their own reasons for keeping distant. "It can be less threatening to parents who have had a bad experience at school themselves to get messages by email, or text, from school."

She feels that there is a strong argument for ICT's place within the curriculum: "I think ICT is one of those things that everybody should have a basic grasp of." And she recognises that many young people will want more than this: "There should be vocational pathways for those who want to use ICT in say science or engineering." Such work-focused qualifications should "have the same status as academic subjects", she believes, a view she shares with the Government, "I am assured by ministers that they will have. They just don't come into the Bac [the recently introduced English Baccalureate]."

Previously the job of promoting the role of ICT in schools fell to the, now abolished, agency Becta, dismantled because of a perception that ICT is embedded in schools and it's work is finished. "I think it's done," she agrees, "but it's not something you can stand still on because the world of ICT is changing all the time. If you do you will go backwards. You have got to move forwards all the time."

It's not just in schools where this is the case. When it comes to the use of technology for learning Baroness Walmsley believes, "We are world leaders. We want to keep that position. We don't want to slide back." It is one area she feels that the Government has a role. "We need more technologists," she says, and investment must be encouraged and further and higher education establishment must be challenged to make sure that there is a sufficiently qualified workforce.

While in the area of using ICT for teaching and learning the Government has remained at arms length, Baroness Walmsley believes that this is not the right approach for every aspect of new technologies. "There is a role for government to analyse what industry needs, which directions it is likely to take, and to make sure we have a continuous stream through to business from university, college, training, and schools. It is important for the survival of the country internationally."

More information

Baroness Walmsley is also a parliamentary ambassador to Save the Children, and the NSPCC, and a patron of the Infant Trust, the Children's Rights Alliance for England, Dynamic, the Movement Foundation and the British Assistive Technology Association. More on Baroness Joan Walmsley at Wikipedia and her own website


John GallowayJohn Galloway works as advisory teacher for ICT/SEN and inclusion in Tower Hamlets, London, and as a freelance writer and consultant.  He is the author of Harnessing Technology for Every Child Matters and Personalised Learning and runs his own blog.

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