'Has there ever been a more crucial moment for NAACE to step up?' ask Bob Harrison and Merlin John
Michael GoveMichael Gove: reassuring?Given the closure of Becta, the abandonment of the Harnessing Technology Strategy and the alarming policy silence on ICT for learning, has there ever been a more crucial time for the education technology community to come together to fill the void, create some momentum and provide evidence that ICT enhances learning?

That will be top of the agenda for NAACE, the educational ICT professionals' organisation, at its annual conference and exhibition in Reading with the theme "Brave New World: Changing Times in Education".

Naace was quick off the mark last year when it became obvious that the Coalition Government was not convinced of the value of ICT for learning and had very little experience. NAACE organised a series of focus groups and worked with a number of interested groups and organisations to produce a “statement” on the value of ICT for Learning which was presented to the Department for Education (DfE).

'We do not want to over-emphasise the role of ICT in education'

The belated response from schools minister Nick Gibb MP, in which he finally acknowledged that he was responsible for schools ICT,  went a little way to explaining the Government's carefully maintained silence on ICT: "The shared vision statement raises a number of points. In broad terms we accept the statement but with a caveat that we do not want to over-emphasis the role of ICT in education – excellent teaching for pupils remains the key to success."

At the BETT 2011 educational technology exhibition and conference and the Learning Without Frontiers event in January there were some more encouraging signs, albeit the result of lobbying by organisations like BESA (the British Educational Suppliers Association), which should create a slightly more optimistic climate for the Naace gathering in Reading. However, if anyone is looking to education secretary Michael Gove MP for reassurance it's likely to be a long wait.

When he welcomed 50 education ministers and officials representing 70 countries to the Education World Forum in BETT Week – they were attending to learn, among other things, how UK schools were using ICT to transform learning – his only reference to ICT was this: "I'm also delighted that many of you will have the chance to see for yourselves the very best of the English education system: the private sector and the technology that it has generated, and the public sector and the excellence it embodies."

The response was muted, and his focus on knowledge likewise failed to impress: "Economic growth has been spread inequitably. And nations which are adjusting to reality after years of folly are finding the process inevitably painful. But bumpy, indeed turbulent, as the journey ahead might be, we are also fortunate in knowing that the best route, not just to safety but to plenty will be. That route is the the pursuit of knowledge." Not even a nod to popular priorities in schools like project-based learning or 21st century learning skills.

Heavyweight keynote presenters Ewan McIntosh and Stephen Heppell

It's against this background that NAACE members will be working to build up evidence of the successful use of ICT for teaching and learning. And the conference programme is packed with people and issues to support. Like the two heavyweight keynote presenters with their fingers on the international pulse for learning with ICT – Ewan McIntosh and Professor Stephen Heppell.

Ewan McIntoshEwan McIntoshWith his success in both the public sector, in school and at Learning and Teaching Scotland, and in the private sector working with digital innovators at 4IP, Ewan McIntosh is steeped in pedagogy. His influence on CPD (continuing professional developent) has grown with the spread of the 'TeachMeet' movement in which teachers organise and share their own practice. Now running his own company, NoTosh, Ewan McIntosh is certain to inspire and provoke debate.

Professor Stephen Heppell, has maintained an unbroken relationship between classroom practice and public policy for ICT since his days as the key architect of the Stevenson Report which heralded the Blair Government's impressive investment in schools ICT. The innovative and practical thinking he brought to school leaders involved in the Building Schools for the Future which latterly brought much success despite what the political propagandists might claim, will be eagerly awaited in Reading.

There will also be insights into what future CPD could look like in the workshops by the director of the Vital project, Peter Twining. And Dan Stucke from Stretford High School will be sharing how the innovative Digital Leaders scheme is unlocking the potential of learners to support and improve teachers' ICT skills.

NAACE will demonstrate its own connection with the zeitgeist with its very own TeachMeet. And conference favourite Professor Sugata Mitra, who won the 2011 Learning Without Frontiers Special Achievement award, will give an update on his latest findings on the phenomena which he observed when children are given maximum autonomy for their own learning. They create their own "self organised learning systems".

The impetus to spread ICT across the curriculum has led to worries that computer studies has been eclipsed, disadvantaging those who wish to follow ICT careers. and the industry itself which finds it difficult to source suitable new employees. That's why the Royal Society is currently carrying out an investigation into the teaching of computing in schools following alarm at the decline in the number of pupils studying at advanced level, and Steve Furber, who chairs the investigation, will share some initial findings.

Jim Knight, one of few ministers capable of holding their own on ICT and learning

One of the few schools ministers in recent years capable of holding his own with educationists on international platforms, former schools minister (now Lord) Jim Knight, has continued his interest in, and commitment, to learning with ICT. So it's appropriate that he will be presenting NAACE's ICT Impact awards, and he may well have insights to share on how to engage the Coalition Government on ICT as he did at the BETT 2011 TeachMeet. With with more 25 break-out sessions and master-classes, the delegates should have a great opportunity to discover from each “what works”, strengthen existing networks for CPD and create some momentum in the drive to convince the Government that technology enhanced learning should be at the heart of every school improvement strategy.

Miles BerryMiles BerryThis won't be lost on NAACE's own officers. Miles Berry, who takes over as chair in 2012, says: "The 'Brave New World' theme for this year's Naace conference strikes two chords: one of Huxley's dystopian future of social stratification and programmed learning; the other of Miranda's exultation in The Tempest, on seeing the world beyond her own insular upbringing: 'O brave new world, that has such people in IT!'

"I suspect many delegates' feelings as they head to Wokefield Park will be filled with thoughts of the former, having coped with immense change to the educational technological ecosystem over the past nine months, with an almost complete withdrawal of central government from this arena, and with a future which owes more to Hard Times than Great Expectations.

"However, I hope and expect that colleagues' thoughts on their return might reflect more of Miranda's optimism, as we recognise that we've now come of age and that teachers, technologists, strategic leaders, commercial partners and academics can work together to set the agenda, provide the support and offer the challenge that's needed to make the best use of technology in transforming education and thus our young people's lives."

Current chair of NAACE, Rachel Ager is confident that the conference's wide range of offerings will give the organisation a richer voice: “Naace Annual Conference 2011 provides the ICT community with the ideal forum at  which they can come together to debate the issues that we face in this “Brave New World”. A world in which it is imperative that we have an strong voice, a voice that is listened to and respected by our political leaders. I am therefore delighted that at Wokefield Park we will be welcoming delegates from right across our ever broadening community who will be able to enjoy and participate in an agenda that is so full it will test the resilience of even the most hardened conference-goer.”

NAACE annual conference and exhibition: "Brave New World: Changing Times in Education"

A news report on the NAACE conference, with a focus on how the technology industry may have an increased role in teacher CPD, will be posted on this site.

Bob HarrisonBob Harrison is an education consultant who works with the National College for Leadership of Schools and Children's Services and Toshiba UK. You can read his blog on the Futurelab Flux website. He runs Support for Education and Training.