Bob Harrison asks what's brave about a new education landscape of cuts and lack of strategy
Sugate MitraProfessor Sugata Mitra: upliftingThe Naace community includes teachers, local authority advisers, teachers, consultant and ICT suppliers. At its first annual conference since the Coalition Government more than 300 members gathered to contemplate what was billed as a “Brave New World” of no central policy or strategy, a “schools know best” ideology, a focus on “teaching” rather than "learning" and a political climate where “private” is preferred over the “public” sector.

Where exactly is the brave? Or should that be the key feature of those who will stand out to demonstrate great learning and teaching and how ICT can support and extend it by engaging young people?

So how did it go? The best conference for some time? According to most Naace delegates and the NAACE website feedback, this was one of the most successful conferences for some years. Yes, it was slickly presented, at a great venue, with good food and a stimulating and engaging programme, all put together by helpful and supportive events team.

There was an overwhelming and powerful sense of community and truly inspiring words (even if you couldn’t read the slides from the back of the big room) from Ewan MacIntosh, a Skyping, sleepy Professor Stephen Heppell (still great value), from Hobart, Australia, and the uplifting and ever evolving stand-up routine of Professor Sugata Mitra. The breakouts and masterclasses all provided affirmation of the delegates' unilateral belief that “technology enhances learning”.

Policy makers need to get a handle on ICT for learning

But was I the only observer to sense underlying unease? Underneath all the 'feely touchy' warmth and glow some other delegates were also concerned that this belief of the value of ICT for learning is not definitely not shared or even fully understood in 'unfeely toughy' policy making circles and an increasing sense of frustration that nobody is listening?

Worse still, with news coming in by the day of cutbacks and redundancies in both the public sector (whole advisory teams in some local authoritiess) and the private (50 at RM for example) that unless policy makers quickly get a handle on ICT strategy for schools in England serious damage could result. This is likely to affect pupil engagement and, with individual schools encouraged to go their own way, undermine the aggregation that has so far been achieved for schools and drive up the total cost of ownership of ICT for schools.

It was no surprise therefore that, unlike previous years, even under Conservative administrations, there was no ministerial presence at the conference. And while the conversations and back channels were full of criticisms of Government policy drivers, for example the importance it places on PISA tables, the 500-pound gorilla remained an invisible bigfoot.

Niel McleanNiel McleanThere were those who suggested that the lack of ministerial backing might not be such a hindrance. Niel Mclean, former director of BECTA and the architect, with former schools minister Lord Jim Knight of the £300 million Home Access to Technology initiative, suggested: “The Naace community has a wonderful opportunity to be 'practice led' and be free of the constraints of government ministers policy announcements.” But if that was the case, shouldn't there have been more open criticism and discussion rather than muted concern? At the current rate of cuts and redundancies the landscape for NAACE's 2012 conference is likely to be a far more difficult place for learning with ICT.

It is now more than two years since, at a Naace “think tank” meeting, the predictable Govian type question was asked: “Why are we number one in OECD tables for expenditure on computers in schools and colleges and languishing in 20th places in all the academic subjects counted for international league tables?”

The education technology community has yet to produce a convincing answer and now BECTA ring-fenced funding and the Harnessing Technology strategy are already becoming distant memories.

The changing profile of Naace

Originally the acronym Naace represented the National Association of Advisers in Computer Education but it became apparent several years ago that local authority advisers were becoming an endangered species. So, to ensure sustainability, “Advisers” became “Advancement” and therefore the community became more inclusive and comprehensive.

Analysis of the 300 delegates at this year's conference reflects this evolution with more than 40 per cent representing the ICT industry, Just 22 per cent were from local authorities, 16 per cent from schools, a growing 14 per cent from independent consultancies (buoyed with with experienced and well qualified former LA and agency people), 4 per cent from higher education and a final 4 per cent from "other bodies". But despite the varied background of the delegates there appeared to be a growing consensus that there was one vital emerging challenge for the education technology community.

Education workforce professional development the big issue

Peter TwiningPeter TwiningHowever one promising piece of news, and perhaps an indication that the Government is starting to listen, was the announcement that Vital, the Open University-managed and DfE funded £5.6m professional development programme for teachers and the education workforce,will be funded for 2011/12 albeit with a reduced £2.5m. This should allow Vital to continue to support teachers' development within the regions and the growing number of popular teacher-led “TeachMeet” events.

“I am really pleased the DfE has decided to continue to fund the Vital project,” said Vital project director Peter Twining. “ We have reached or exceeded all our targets for the first phase of the project and I am convinced that the response from teachers will enable us to ensure Vital eventually becomes self-sustaining.”

To complement the work of Vital, NAACE also has its own programme for teachers, ICT CPD for free, and this whole area requires more work and a clear focus. (It's also good news that NAACE will be given a licence to run the ICT Mark, endorsed by the Department for Education, for the next 12 months.)

Industry and private sector support for CPD

There can be no doubt that the private sector is already stepping up to make a significant contribution to the professional development of teachers and other education professionals in its networks and communities of practice. These include:
Microsoft's Partners in Learning network
The Google Teacher Academy
Cisco's education leaders programme
Apple's iTunesU for educators and
Apple Distinguished Educators
Promethean Planet
The Toshiba Ambassadors Programme

Dave Smith, ICT consultant and curriculum adviser for the London Borough of Havering and a Toshiba Ambassador, recently attended a Toshiba Ambassadors event and had this to say: “The Toshiba Ambassadors’ event provided an excellent opportunity to share current thoughts on ICT in education. Bringing together ICT advocates from across all sectors of education, with a manufacturer commited to providing educationally-focused products and hearing the views of those at the interactive whiteboard face, was very productive. Out morning session helped everyone reflect on what appears to be the blank canvas presented by the Coalition Government.

Dave SmithDave Smith"Although we had different approaches there was a solid agreement that ICT has a very important part to play in education. The event culminated in an afternoon sharing the latest updates on some of the emerging  technologies which are in the final stages of development at Toshiba and could enhance learning. As a CPD event – it certainly produced a number of valuable outcomes very quickly.”

As well as the small independent consultancies ready and able to provide flexible, cost-effective professional development in schools and colleges there are also the private sector big boys such as Capita, Tribal and RM (itself affected by a round of 50 redundancies which affected well-known education faces including Phil Hemmings and former HMI for ICT Cathy Morgan).

Changes at the Teacher Development Agency

Becta had been doing a lot of work on workforce development, now archived here, and the responsibility for this has now passed to the TDA which last year published an evaluation of ICT in initial teacher training. Following the departure of the much-lauded Tim Tarrant, his replacement at the TDA is Mike Harrison who has responsibility for the technological development of teacher skills (TILT). Attending his first Naace conference, he was very clear about the future direction for workforce development: "“We have a clear responsibility to future generations of learners to make sure that our teachers are well prepared to make best use of new technologies. And not merely for delivery but also, importantly, so that students can explore and expand the boundaries of their worlds and create Brave New Ones. I am conscious that how (and how well) we prepare trainees will define the life chances of those in their care for years to come.”

Where to next?

So warm feelings, inspiring words, strong sense of community and a stirring event. What happens now? Who does what and when? Teachers return to their schools with no budgets settled and no ring-fenced funding for ICT for the first time since 1981. The industry vendors bid for business in an increasingly competitive market. Local authority advisers struggle to survive in a political hostile context. The independent and freelance consultants grow in number and the managed service providers see their margins fall while education ministers exhibit a grudging tolerance of the part technology might play in enhancing learning. However they are overly fearful of over-exaggerated claims of impact and, like jealous former lovers, are none too keen on a pet project of a previous regime.

Naace members remained upbeat however, like ICT adviser for Lewsiham Tom Cooper on Twitter: “Onwards and upwards... we hold the key to future at Naace and whilst a battle cry is not enough it is at least a start.”

The final conference challenge for the future came from Ben Arora, education programme director at NESTA: “The education system we have constructed is incapable of keeping pace with the economic and societal changes taking place around it.” Delegates leaving Naace might well reflect on Ben Arora’s words and the  quote from Antonio Gramsci the Italian philsopher and political theorist so beloved by education minister Michael Gove: “We need a pessimism of intellect and an optimism of will.”

It's the quote that Michael Gove used ikn his address to education ministers and officials from 70 countries at the Education World Forum in London in January, and he obviously picked it carefully. Time will tell.

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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.

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