RSA Opening Minds

Left behind and losing out

Left behind and losing out: the government’s failure of leadership on the digital revolution in education

Three technology stories caught my eye during August.

First a story in the TES:

“The world’s ‘most wired’ nation, South Korea, expects to replace all paper textbooks with electronic tablets at its state-run schools by 2015.” TES 29th July 2011

Second, The Times reported (25th August) that Amazon has just launched a textbook rental service for the Kindle. It will only be a matter of time before it comes to the UK.

Then we had the Ofcom story on smart phones in the bathroom! Apparently two thirds of teenagers say they have used their smartphone while socialising with others, nearly a third resort to their handset during mealtimes and nearly half admitted using or answering their handset in the bathroom or toilet.

The research[1] also shows that teenagers are ditching more traditional activities in favour of their smartphone, with 23 per cent claiming to watch less TV and 15 per cent admitting they read fewer books.

These changes are bound to affect the curriculum and teaching and learning. So where is the government thinking and leadership on the digital revolution in education?

Tim Loughton, Parliamentary Under-Secretary for Children, did actually make a speech at the BETT technology conference earlier this year. But when it comes to policy and the curriculum Ministers have nothing to say.  Neither Michael Gove nor Nick Gibb talk about technology nor appear to see its relevance to learning in the modern digital era.

Schools in England did well during the first decade of the century to catch up on using ICT in education.  They moved from begging and borrowing second-hand PCs from parents and collecting supermarket vouchers to buy computers, which was the legacy of the 1990s, to having ICT suites, laptops for teachers and electronic whiteboards in most classrooms and broadband in every school.

Learning platforms have become the norm enabling students, staff and parents to embed ICT in all aspects of learning, assessment, and communication.

Even then we should not kid ourselves.  The last annual report by the education technology agency, BECTA, before its abolition said that only just over one third of secondary schools and just one third of primary schools were, on a range of measures, judged ‘e-mature’[2].

And such is the pace of change we are in danger of getting stuck with old technology and falling behind other competitor countries. Tablets and smart phones are just two of the many developments that will have an impact on schools.

Just at the point we might need it most we have no agency to provide the vision, leadership and strategy, ensure that schools have the necessary bandwidth and Wi-Fi  infrastructure and are steered on how to make the most of the emerging technologies. BECTA is no more.

The coalition government took a very conscious decision to slash by £100m the harnessing technology grant, that underpinned schools’ ICT investment, and used the money not to cut the deficit but to fund Free Schools. That tells you all you need to know about the government’s priorities.

And despite the government paying lip service to improved social mobility the home access fund, that provided free computer and internet access for families who did not have these facilities, has been abolished. A practical and effective policy to reduce the digital divide has been axed.

Of course ICT is only a means to an end of improved learning but it is an increasingly important means. To quote Tim Loughton:

“More than ever before, technology is of profound importance to young people’s development. We know it supports good teaching, we know it helps students get better results, we know it helps to reduce truancy…the time has come to place technology at the absolute centre of our aspirations for a world class education sector.” BETT Conference, 13th January 2011

Fine words. Pity there isn’t any coherent strategy or leadership to put them into effect.

Robert Hill is Chair of RSA Opening Minds


[1] Communications Market Report: UK, Ofcom. August 2011

[2]  Harnessing Technology Review 2009 The role of technology in education and skills, BECTA, November 2009

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