Friday, 14 August 2009

Becta comes under fire as a Schools Quango too far

I usually save feelings of worldweariness for stories I read in a copy of the Daily Mail picked up in error from the tube seat next to mine, thinking it was a Metro. However, the BBC's coverage of a thinktank report on educational quangos yesterday made me just as depressed. And anyone who knows what an irrepressible optimist I usually am will be shocked by that revelation.

The innocent-sounding Centre for Policies Studies (front page of website: video of Dave Cameron) has written a report calling for 11 educational quangos to be culled, amongst them Becta and PfS. I won't even start on the logic behind getting rid of bodies such as the NCSL and QCDA (after all, who needs skilled school leaders or an appropriate curriculum?) but will instead focus my attention on the technology-facing bodies. Ray Fleming's Microsoft UK Schools blog also talked about this topic - go and have a look if you don't already subscribe.

First up, let me declare an interest; I've worked with several people from both bodies on new build school projects and have even freelanced on some research for Becta back in the mists of time when I was an ICT teacher. However, what follows is offered in the spirit of common sense.

Becta first: the job of this body is to develop the use of technology in schools and colleges and through things like their Self Review Framework, ICT Mark and the targets set for the take up of Learning Platforms, things are (slowly) changing. Schools must bear some of the weight of responsibility to engage in these processes too, though. It is recognised by all the teachers I know that to meet the needs of the '21st Century learner' schools' offerings need to be much more engaging and relevant. ICT is a powerful too to achieve this, and Becta is doing a pretty good job of pushing schools on this front.

The criticism always levelled at Becta is that despite all their work, little effect on exam results due to better use of technology is evident. Despite this being not (quite) true (see here), this argument is akin to criticising Usain Bolt for not winning gold in the mixed Dressage - effective use of ICT is only ever going to have a tiny impact on something as structured as the formal summative assessment of what 16 year olds can remember about the Agricultural Revolution... If our assessment system measured creativity, problem solving, the ability to work with others, or working to a deadline and to high standards, I imagine Becta's work would be seen in quite another light. Curiously enough, these kind of 'soft skills' are exactly the type of thing most employers value over a C in GCSE History. Becta's response to the CPS report can be seen here by the way.

Anyway, moving on: Partnerships for Schools. I won't go into detail, I think brevity will aid the point here - my informed and personally-experienced opinion is that without PfS, it's structures, processes and the very talented people behind them, there isn't a snowball's chance in hell that any Building Schools for the Future project would every be transformational or amount to an effective use of public money. Newly built schools would be architecturally splendid but educationally vapid and within them, the teachers further disillusioned and the children robbed of an appropriate preparation for life in the modern world. Now there's something the Daily Mail would really get hot under the collar about...