Monday, 24 May 2010

Why Becta's demise is a disaster for learning with ICT

The new ConLib government today announced that Becta, the lead agency for ICT in education, is to be scrapped, perhaps as early as November.

I first blogged about this last August, when the sabre-rattling began. What follows is an update to that content:

First up, let me declare an interest; I've worked with several people from Becta 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, this is offered in the spirit of common sense.

The job of  Becta is/ was 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. The pace of this change is the basis for many criticisms of Becta. 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 tool to achieve this, and Becta is doing a pretty good job of pushing schools on this front. It's not fashionable to say it, but I am sure that there are some schools who will take their foot off the gas without this external pressure. The head of steam which has gradually been building will dissipate and progress will stall.

Similarly, working in an industry where it is pretty evident that other organisations are very keen to do things 'their way' (especially if there's a 'saving' to be made), Becta have made themselves fairly unpopular by insisting on a level of standardisation, both technically and in terms of approach. Their guidance on developing visions, for example, ensures that schools think about the full gamut of local and national priorities. Their work on establishing a common framework for MIS data (SIF-UK) will make data transfer between providers effective and timely. Becta's Technical and Functional Specifications have formed the basis for the evolution of many schools' systems. Unless these and similar functions are transferred elsewhere, what we will very quickly see in the Educational ICT Landscape is a return to the 'islands of excellence in a sea of mediocrity' situation, as excellent schools continue to excel and those in different circumstances are left to flounder.

Another 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. And this is the nub of the issue; the incumbent government value the latter and barely acknowledge the former.

Stephen Heppell (@stephenheppell) has rightly and pragmatically declared this an opportunity for the "many wise and helpful bloggers and podders and tweeters that are already providing a mass of inspiration and effective practice for others – a bottom-up army of authentic practitioners" to take up the baton. Let's hope their efforts can be shaped effectively by some kind of structure (Naace perhaps?) and pointed towards the Greater Good, rather than personal hobby horses. Most importantly, any ground-up, crowd-sourced approach has to be adequately separated from the distracting attentions of suppliers and other commercially interested organisations... You know who you are!

Follow me on Twitter @domnorrish

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