Demonstrator Hubs: A welcome development in the face of our pedagogy-light ed-tech strategy

Written by: Bob Harrison | Published:
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GCSe ICT dropped in 2018? How sad. I helped write the first GCSE ICT in the ‘80s with John Hammond.

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As the DfE unveils which schools have been successful in their bid to become new ed-tech Demonstrator Hubs, Bob Harrison says that this promising project must not distract from the on-going challenges facing computing education and our pedagogy-light ed-tech strategy

The glitz, glamour and bright lights of Bett 2020 in the pre-pandemic world seem like an eternity ago now.

But while schools help lead the fight against coronavirus, wider education policy has not been forgotten. As such, Friday (April 24) saw the muted launch of the Department for Education’s long-awaited and much-anticipated “Demonstrator Hubs” programme– a key part of its ed-tech strategy published last year (DfE, 2019a).

“Demonstrator Hubs” are to lead the way in showing how technologies can be used in education and the names of the 20 schools and colleges that have been selected have now been made public on a new dedicated website.

As the ed-tech strategy rolls out, the £10 million project has already seen several roadshows delivered by the British Educational Suppliers Association which have been well attended, although some have said that more of a focus on people and pedagogy is needed rather than the seeming obsession with products and services. The same criticism can be levelled at the entire ed-tech strategy (SecEd, 2019).

It is for this reason that the Demonstrator Hubs programme is promising. Schools and colleges who are “using technology effectively and are keen to share their experience and support other providers” had been invited to bid for grants of up to £150,000. This will hopefully see more of a focus on practice over products.

And given recent events, the programme has also been given an added focus of supporting remote learning.

The new official website states: “The Demonstrator schools and colleges will provide professional development, initially focused on supporting the effective delivery of remote teaching practices to schools and colleges across the country. The programme will target schools and colleges who are most in need of support; for example, those getting to grips with using a new online learning platform and those with the most disadvantaged learners. This will include:

  • Advice, guidance and training including a mix of group support through webinars, recorded content and peer-to-peer discussions.
  • Content on the use of online learning platforms, digital safety, supporting the needs of pupils with SEND and how to promote pupil and teacher wellbeing during remote teaching.

There is also a “universal offer” of support delivered through the website. This offer will draw on the work of the Demonstrator Schools and Colleges and will “provide schools and colleges across the country with access to recorded tutorials, advice and guidance aimed at supporting effective remote working”.

More broadly, the scheme has met some criticism for the criteria used for selection, which included phonics scores, above average Progress 8 and a high percentage of EBacc entries. This certainly will exclude some schools that really are inspiring when it comes to the outstanding use of technology, especially assistive technology (DfE, 2019b).

Of course, the excellence and inspiration to be found within the Demonstrator Hubs is not to be doubted and it is welcome that these schools will be setting the way and leading by example as they support others. Many schools will equally welcome the immediate support for remote learning.

One of the successful Demonstrator Hub schools is King Ecgbert School in Sheffield. Headteacher Paul Haigh told me: “The closure of schools due to Covid19 has brought the benefit of online learning into sharp focus. The schools who had not neglected their virtual infrastructure over the last 10 years have been best placed to give some form of continuity to learners at this difficult time.

“There is obviously much that can't be done online … but schools are reporting very high levels of engagement and support from parents and getting increasingly creative in replicating what students would have been doing. It's the disadvantaged students who are in danger of missing out."

Paul told me how they had reformatted school laptops, added e-safety software and delivered them to the homes of disadvantaged students. He is well aware though that access to technology is one thing but supportive parents who can help students with their studies is something that not all young people have.

As such, he is already planning how he will help these students to catch up when school re-opens, and the additional learning provided through the virtual school set-up will be a big part of that.

However, the clear promise of the Demonstrator Hubs – and the impact they can have during the coronavirus outbreak – must not diminish the debate that still has to be had about where we are heading with our national ed-tech strategy and the challenges that the now not-so-new subject of computing continues to face.

Computing: A change for the better?

Before we entered the world of lockdown, school standards minister Nick Gibb told the House of Commons during Education Questions that: “It was this government that replaced the ICT curriculum with computer science.”

It sounded like a boast. However, not only was he incorrect (ICT was replaced by computing not computer science), Mr Gibb also failed to disclose that five years since the reform of the national curriculum, a spend of £100 million, and the establishment of the National Centre for Computer Education, we have seen: fewer pupils and students studying IT/computing subjects, fewer qualifications being obtained, and fewer hours of teaching.

Breaking down the figures, the number of hours of computing/ICT taught in secondary school has dropped by 35.8 per cent between 2012 and 2017. Key stage 4 saw 31,000 fewer hours taught per week, a 47 per cent decrease, while in key stage 3, the time given for computing dropped from an hour in 2012 to just over 45 minutes in 2017 (Kemp & Berry, 2019).

The same research warns that the number of qualifications taken by students in year 11 has decreased by 144,000, or 45 per cent, between 2017 and 2018.

Kemp and Berry warn that “with GCSE computer science student numbers levelling out and the removal of GCSE ICT in 2018, a further decline in the total numbers of hours of computing taught and qualifications taken seems highly likely for 2019”.

There are also concerns about a decline in the number of girls and young women taking the subject (the Kemp and Berry paper highlights that alarming numbers of all-girls schools are dropping computer science at GCSE).

At the same time, there is a shortage of teachers to teach the subject (despite years of generous bursaries). Looking at the DfE’s initial teacher training (ITT) recruitment statistics, between 2016/17 and 2019/20, the target for computing teachers was 2,800. Actual recruitment stands at 1,963.

There is no doubt that teachers are doing their level best to make sense of the situation and CPD opportunities are helping, but it is difficult to establish how effective the changes have been given that Ofsted no longer carries out subject inspections.

I fear that it will not be the first time a costly top down government intervention will have had the unintended consequence of making things worse. If only the DfE had listened to the real experts – the teachers and learners.

Technology is for all subjects

Another by-product of the focus on computing is the distraction it has caused from the use of digital technology for teaching, learning and assessment across the curriculum and in all subjects.

Prior to the reform of the ICT national curriculum, the head of ICT would usually have had subject-specific and cross-curricular remits in a school, as well as responsibility for technological infrastructure.

This has now changed and, combined with a lack of genuine interest from ministers in the use of digital technology for teaching, learning and assessment, has meant that progress has stalled. It also perhaps explains the ed-tech strategy’s focus on products ahead of pedagogy. This issue suddenly seems to be much more pressing given the current school closures and teachers having to rethink how to teach and support learning and learners remotely.

The Edtech50 Awards

Flying in the face of these challenges, The Education Foundation and its founder and resilient campaigner and tech advocate, Ty Goddard, has launched the next iteration of the Edtech50 Awards. They celebrates the best products, people and projects and I was fortunate enough to be one of the judges.

I have followed the use of ed-technology with great interest and not least some degree of disappointment and frustration over the last 20 years. My interest has been sustained by the creativity, innovation and resilience of the teachers and learners – which is why I am hopeful about the new Demonstrator Hubs. Every year as a judge of numerous awards, including the EdTech50, I am inspired by their efforts to improve learning despite the challenges and obstacles that are put in their way.

What about the teachers?

Despite years of effort, including generous bursaries, to recruit teachers to teach the computing curriculum, schools are still finding it very difficult to attract and retain suitably qualified staff.

There are also concerns about the current ITT programmes and whether there is sufficient emphasis to prepare teachers of all subjects for the pedagogical demands and opportunities that digital technology provides.

A recent DfE attempt to fund a national computing SCITT failed due to lack of interested bidders, and while some ITT providers are making real attempts to prepare their students for a digital world, provision is uneven.

Professor Andy Connell, associate professor of education at Chester University and chair of the Technology and Pedagogy Education Association, is clear about the problems: “Many ITE partnerships do their very best to support the use of technology for effective learning and teaching across the whole curriculum. It is disappointing to have seen explicit reference to this important area removed in the latest iteration of the Teachers’ Standards and the new Early Career Framework.

“As for computing, recruitment to teacher training of the subject continues to be a real challenge. We had seen an improvement in recruitment numbers with ICT, but the curriculum change eliminated this.”

A different route?

One interesting development to try and think differently about the conventional route into the teaching of computing and the use of technology across all curriculum areas has come from the University of Gloucester, with course director Richard Cook proposing a BSc degree in education technology along with qualified teacher status – an innovative offer which is flexible and is a response to the feedback he has had from local schools.

He explained: “I taught ICT and computing and computer science for 15 years and now work as a teacher educator on the PGCE secondary computing. The problems I had in school seem to have followed me to teacher education. In school I struggled to recruit a diverse group of students each year to computing and computer science. Recruiting to the PGCE in computing is challenging every year.

“As a head of department, I struggled to recruit suitably qualified staff and fewer staff already in the school were happy to teach computing. What I see as the problem is that perceptions of computing limit initial engagement with it and engagement with it in schools fosters apathy and frustration – except for a small minority of people.

“Our approach at the University of Gloucestershire is to launch a course that blends technical and creative computing with education and learning theory plus school experiences. The course aims to present a different approach to teacher training and has computing, ICT and digital skills bundled with pedagogy and practical classroom experience.

“Our hope is that we can engage a wider variety of people who can develop broader digital skills and work in schools as expert teachers of technologies used for educational purposes.”

So what next?

The expensive computing curriculum reform juggernaut continues with little evidence of systematic positive impact and plenty of evidence of regression for teachers and students – not least in up-take among students, which perhaps is the only rubric which matters?

Teachers and learners continue to use digital technology to improve teaching, learning and assessment creatively, despite the constraints of the national curriculum, accountability systems and lukewarm support from the DfE.

Teacher educators continue to try and ensure that their students are strengthening their digital pedagogical practice but provision is variable.

As Professor Diana Laurillard, the author of the very first government Harnessing Technology strategy almost 20 years ago, concluded: “The drivers of the education system – assessment, funding flows, accountability system, and promotion criteria – have not changed in recognition of what technology can offer.” (Laurillard, 2005)

That may still be the case but it does not seem to stop teachers and learners trying and that continues to give me hope.

Time to reframe?

The Covid-19 pandemic has forced schools to close and teachers to reflect on how they can support learners and learning, and eventually assessment, remotely.

This requires a paradigm shift in the way we design, deliver, support, fund, inspect, and assess teaching and learning. Continuing to try and force new digital technologies into old pedagogies is futile. If education can learn anything from this crisis, it is the need to reflect on not only what we teach and learn, but also how and where we teach and learn.

  • Bob Harrison is a former teacher, lecturer, principal and former education adviser for Toshiba Northern Europe, is a current chair of governors. He was a member of the ministerial action groups ETAG and FELTAG. He was a trustee of the UfI a charity supporting the use of technology in education. Follow him on Twitter @bobharrisonedu.

Further information

GCSe ICT dropped in 2018? How sad. I helped write the first GCSE ICT in the ‘80s with John Hammond.
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