Evidence of cause and effect?  Becta now under fire


In 1997 Tony Blair pledged “By 2002 every one of the 32,000 schools in Britain will have modern computers, the educational programmes to go on them, the teachers skilled to teach on them, the pupils skilled to use them, connected to the superhighway.” In 2000  his pre-election education pledges include £710 million for new technology in schools, five pupils per computer in secondary and eight pupils per computer in primary schools within four years. From 2009 all primary schools in the UK were compelled to provide learning opportunities through the effective use of technology. The recent Rose Review of the primary school curriculum committed primary schools to “strengthening the teaching and learning of ICT to enable [pupils] to be independent and confident users of technology by the end of primary education”. The DCSF spends £1.65 billion annually on IT for classrooms, which accounts for a significant share of the £55 billion BSF programme.

A just completed, year long study, by the Institute of Education, of over 600 pupils in primary schools across England asked children how they would prefer technology to be used in their learning. It reveals pupils’ concerns over ‘low-tech’ primary schools, but suggests that only minor improvements are needed .Despite demands from many industry professionals to rebuild and restructure schools to suit upcoming cohorts of “digital natives” the vast majority of children reckon that only minor changes would be required to make their schools’ use of technology more engaging and exciting. “While we expected children to be making radical demands for virtual classes or robot teachers, the majority simply wanted the occasional chance to bring their own devices into school”, said  Dr Neil Selwyn from the University of London’s Institute of Education.   More than half of the 7-11 year olds in the study had their own mobile phone, and nearly 90 percent had their own games console at home. The study found that more than 80 percent of children regularly play computer games, and more than one-in-five make regular use of social networking sites such as Bebo, Habbo or MySpace in their spare time. In contrast, the most frequent school ICT uses were word processing and internet searching. The study also found a continued need for schools to work with children on issues of internet safety. Only one third of the pupils surveyed were knowledgeable about staying safe when using the internet. Similarly, more than 60 percent wanted more help from their teachers in terms of learning about ‘e-safety’.

This is against the backdrop  of a widespread belief that ICT can empower teachers and learners, transforming teaching and learning processes from being highly teacher-dominated to student-centered, and that this transformation will result in increased learning gains for  pupils  creating and allowing  more opportunities for learners to develop their creativity, problem-solving abilities, informational reasoning skills, communication skills, and other higher-order thinking skills and help develop too  learner  autonomy. Many teachers also think that using ICT in class offers capacity to change the very nature of pupil learning.  Key to the Governments support and investment in schools ICT is the assumption that it helps raise standards though causal links remain difficult to prove.  This, of course, is not just about asking ‘Does ICT have an impact on educational outcomes?’, it is also about understanding the nature of any impacts, the factors associated with them and the conditions which enable positive change.  Surprisingly, given the scale of investment there are currently very limited, unequivocally compelling data to support this belief.

However, one survey –The big picture: The Impact of ICT on Attainment, Motivation and Learning (2003) helpfully summarized and discussed  some large-scale studies on  the impact of ICT. The key findings from this review appear to be that:

• Generally something positive happens to the attainment of pupils who make (relatively) high use of ICT in their subject learning

• School standards are positively associated with the quality of school ICT resources and quality of their use in teaching and learning, regardless of socio-economic characteristics

• Use of ICT in class generally motivates pupils to learn

• Achieving positive impact of ICT on attainment, motivation and learning depends critically on the decisions of schools, teachers and pupils on how it is deployed and used

The  study suggests that ‘ Overall, the weight of evidence presented here suggests clearly that ICT provision and pupil ICT use do in fact impact positively on pupil attainment and on school standards – though there is no definitive study demonstrating causality’,

It also found that the effective use and impact of ICT varies, considerably, between subjects.

But it’s an expensive business and once you invest in ICT you have to constantly maintain the ICT infrastructure, regularly updating both hardware and software to keep pace. And there is a strong suspicion that that there is huge wastage and unscrupulous over selling by at least some providers.  Some schools are over a barrel, wishing to be seen as progressive with state of the art ICT   but ending up purchasing equipment and indeed software that has little demonstrable educational value.

Schools spend £1.65 billion a year on information technology, with one computer to every three pupils in secondary schools, and one to six in primary schools. Yet as the Times pointed out this week some heads, particularly those involved with the BSF programme, complain that they have lost freedom over their IT budgets, and are forced to buy expensive equipment through designated suppliers.  Armando Di-Finizio, the head of Brunel Academy,at the cutting edge of ICT schools use,  said that millions of pounds were being wasted on “white elephant” technology in schools. He said that his school — the first to be rebuilt under BSF — had continuing technical difficulties. “The school was designed to be completely wireless but I have yet to see a school where wireless works well. He criticized the millions of pounds being spent on technology in schools, and suggested that there was a fixation with constantly updating classrooms with the latest gadgets.

Until very recently Microsoft had a virtual stranglehold on the UK education market. Becta, the government ICT education procurement quango has recently reformed its procurement regime to break the software giant’s hold on schools, and launched a programme to get schools to adopt open source software. However, its decisions and preferred suppliers have prompted a heated debate in the blogsphere about the quality of its decisiomaking. And, more generally, Becta and its boss Stephen Crowne, formerly a senior civil servant in the Education Department, have been under fire, as a popular target in the press’ pre-election ‘quango shooting gallery’. Crowne for his part is one of those quango chiefs who is paid more than the Prime Minister, on £220,000 a year. He also made £30,000 of expense claims last year too, including £388 for a TomTom Sat nav for his car-not the best of timing.  Becta has been named in yet another report – this time a government-sponsored one – as an education and training agency that should be merged or abolished to rationalise services and save millions of pounds in public spending .The report Towards Ambition 2020: skills, jobs, growth” by the UK Commission for Employment and Skills (UKCES) pulls no punches.

Its authors believe there are at least 30 too many Government-funded bodies. And with each having its own different rules and requirements, they have made the UK training system too complex and cluttered. The solution put forward includes the merger into one body of all quality improvement agencies that have overlapping responsibilities “including Becta, the Learning and Skills Improvement Service, Standards Verification UK and the non-SSC elements of Lifelong Learning UK”. The report says this should be followed immediately by a 50 per cent cut in their collective budgets and a progressive transfer of “the remaining quality improvement and workforce development funding to providers within three years to create sector accountability and better value for money”.

With a couple of think tanks also identifying Becta as prime target for culling, its future  looks anything but assured.  In the meantime, as funding cuts loom on the horizon there will be much talk of where cuts  to ICT programmes will fall , and rationalizations occur. Schools should use this opportunity to have a long hard look at whether they can afford the burgeoning costs of keeping their systems up to date. Some will have moratoriums on new purchases. But a pause might be beneficial. Too many have come to view ICT as an end in itself rather than as  a useful tool to supplement and complement good classroom teaching and in some  cases costs are out of control . A time for reflection and some cost benefit analysis is surely called for.



  1. Fascinating to revisit this after Becta’s demise and in the current economic climate. Recent experience of mine in a specialist technology college has only strengthened my conviction that current models of funding technology in state schools are defunct, and entirely new approaches, based on an educational benefit analysis, are now urgently needed. But I guess the usual suspects will still be peddling “visions” at BETT, even as I type!

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