Don’t look back in anger? Really?

Written by: Bob Harrison | Published:
Image: iStock

We have seen eight years of government failure to support learning with ICT – a period of neglect and a failure of political leadership and vision. Now, it’s the words of John Osborne that ring true rather than those of Oasis, says Bob Harrison

While the education community – pupils, heads, teachers, governors, support staff – enjoyed a well-deserved summer rest away from the workload and the challenges created by reduced budgets and teacher shortages, education secretary Damian Hinds chose the middle of August to announce in the Daily Telegraph his epiphany about the transformative potential of technology for teaching, learning, assessment, and teacher workload.

Here is what he said: “I’ve been fortunate enough to see technology being used in revolutionary ways. Students are able to explore the rainforest, steer virtual ships or programme robots from their classroom, while teachers are able to access training, share best practice with colleagues and update parents on a pupil’s progress without being taken away from their main focus – teaching.

“Schools, colleges and universities have the power to choose the tech tools which are best for them and their budgets. But they cannot do this alone. It’s only by forging a strong partnership between government, technology innovators and the education sector that there will be sustainable, focused solutions which will ultimately support and inspire the learners of today and tomorrow.”

He identifies five key opportunities for the technology sector to create a step-change in education, improving teaching and slashing workload. These include developing innovative:

  • Teaching practices to support access, inclusion, and improved learning outcomes for all.
  • Assessment processes, making assessment more effective and efficient.
  • Methods for delivery of teacher training and development by upgrading educator support so they can learn and develop more flexibly.
  • Administration processes to reduce the burden of non-teaching tasks.
  • Solutions to lifelong learning to help those who have left the formal education system to get the best from online learning.

Support for technology?

Some have greeted Mr Hinds’ comments as welcome and long overdue. However, it does not seem 10 years ago that I was a member of the Becta Advisory Board (remember them?) sitting in the boardroom in Coventry discussing the next iteration of the Government Harnessing Technology Strategy, which Becta was responsible for delivering with a grant of more than £80 million a year.

The meeting coincided with David Cameron MP speaking at the Conservative Party Conference in Manchester, and soon the Blackberry phones of the Becta top brass were vibrating off the tables. Apparently the prime minister in waiting had mentioned Becta (although he had difficulty pronouncing it) in his speech. At first this seemed a welcome intervention until it became apparent that Becta was at the top of a long list of quangos about to be shut down.

At that time we also had the Building Schools for Future programme, a £45 billion project to transform the secondary school estate to create learning environments fit for the third millennium. And £4.5 billion was ring-fenced to spend on ICT to ensure our children would be digitally literate, skilled and qualified for the digital economy and the world that beckoned. The coalition government scrapped it.

At that time most local authorities had teams of ICT specialist advisors and technical staff (remember them?) to ensure schools were supported on their digital journeys.

Schools could also call on the expertise of Regional Broadband Consortia and “community of practice” membership organisations like Naace to give them guidance and support.

We also had a schools minister, Jim Knight (now Lord Knight), who had ICT in his job description. He knew his brief and even used ICT with learners and teachers in his presentations to education audiences. He walked the talk, as they say.

Dwindling support

So how did we get from that position to where we are now, with pitiful leadership and still dwindling support? Mainly through neglect and a failure of political leadership and vision, driven mainly by an ideology which resonates more with a 19th century view of teaching, learning and assessment than one that will prepare our children for the challenges of a digital world.

The only government intervention on the ICT issue has been the mishandled curriculum reform of ICT to computing which has resulted in a dramatic fall in the number of pupils studying computing or IT-related qualifications (SecEd, June 2018).

There was a brief glimmer of hope when in 2015 the government-commissioned Education Technology Action Group (ETAG), chaired by Professor Stephen Heppell, produced its report and recommendations for the commissioning ministers – Gove, Hancock and Willetts (remember them?). Sadly this never saw the light of day as all three were shuffled and their replacements promptly buried the report.

However, many confident schools ignored the lack of interest and support from politicians and the Department for Education (DfE) and just got on with it. The technology industry has also been active on the ground and the big names have been supporting CPD for teachers through their Ambassadors, MIE Experts, Distinguished Educators and similar programmes. Not to mention the “free” software, storage and support from the big players.

It appeared that things were starting to move when Justine Greening MP arrived at the DfE and asked civil servants: “What are we doing about educational technology?” Of course there was a stony silence from schools minister Nick Gibb, well known for promoting (paper) textbooks from a very “techno-sceptic” perspective.

To her credit Ms Greening established a small but young and talented team of civil servants and set them to work.
I was happy to give them the benefit of my doubt and arranged meetings with some of my professorial friends and colleagues at Stanford University who specialise in this field. They organised a set of roundtable events with teachers, technology companies and academics.

Hopes rose but were ultimately dashed when Ms Greening refused to implement the expansion of grammar schools and had to resign.

Back on the agenda?

Step forward former grammar school pupil Damian Hinds to fill the breach as education secretary and the DfE’s “ed-tech” team members held their breath. Apparently Mr Hinds is a convert and educational technology is back on the agenda?

Well, like many others, he knows how to string buzz-words such as “AI”, “big data”, “teacher workload”, “jobs that haven’t been invented yet” and suchlike into his presentations to give a semblance of being savvy about ed-tech – but what about the pedagogies technology can support so well? Nothing has been said.

However, Mr Hinds has been very quick to find £50 million to fund the expansion of grammar schools, but not a penny for ICT. That speaks volumes for his priorities so forgive me if I am somewhat sceptical when reading his August epiphany about technology.
And even if he has seen the light, he seems to be passing the buck to the industry rather than taking the lead.

View from the ground

Paul Haigh is a headteacher in Sheffield and has worries for the future: “I am headteacher of one of the ‘lucky’ schools that had a huge injection of hardware from BSF,” he explained, “but now I’m left with a legacy of ageing kit on its last legs that I can’t afford to replace.

“The estate of computers is being shrunk, so we are focusing on providing a great web-based virtual school for the students to capitalise on the ever-more impressive consumer technology in their homes when studying away from school.

“The use of IT in school is likely to decrease as the funding worsens. Thoughts of revolutionising learning with technology in the classroom are now nostalgia from a previous part of my career where my work won national awards. My focus as headteacher is how to live through the worst funding I’ve seen in 21 years of teaching and save as many jobs as possible while maintaining standards.”

What the future holds

So, are schools in shape for the next generation of children? My six grandchildren will leave school between 2025 and 2036.
Consider the developments in technology you have experienced in the past two years and then “fast-forward” to 2036? Do you think schools will have the infrastructure, capacity, workforce skills, curriculum, assessment, inspection and accountability systems in place to have met the expectations of these children?

My best guess is there will no longer be out-of-touch ministers urging them to carry heavy textbooks, cram their heads full of time-based facts, develop exam techniques useless outside of schools, and sit in serried rows of desks. Printers (even 3D), projectors and interactive whiteboards will be relegated to “so what” status. Students will only know technologies appropriate to their learning – and this will keep changing.

They will expect screen-based technology, touch and gesture-based computing, voice-to-text and text-to-voice software, augmented and virtual reality, blended learning and instant feedback, online formative and summative assessment and will be familiar with artificial intelligence, machine learning and be able to own and see their own progress data.

That doesn’t mean that they, like us, won’t be familiar with the paper, pens, pencils and erasers and whatever else is appropriate when the tech is not.

So what are the challenges for schools and colleges if teaching learning and assessment are to remain engaging and relevant to their needs?

Well it will take a lot more than a short column of fine words and appeals for help from technology companies in the Daily Telegraph, believe me.

There was a time when we expected educationists, supported by policy-makers and politicians, to come up with the answers. And that remains the best bet for securing our future.

The popular Oasis anthem suggests we “don’t look back in anger”, but after years of witnessing abject failure to support our children and move education forward I am more inclined to go for playwright John Osborne’s version: “Look back in anger.” Much more appropriate.

  • Bob Harrison is a former teacher, lecturer, principal and is currently chair of governors of a college in Barnsley, governor of Oldham College and vice-chair of a secondary modern in Trafford. He was a member of the ministerial action groups ETAG and FELTAG. He is an assessor for the Stanford University Graduate School of Education Master’s degree in learning design with technology. He is a trustee of the UfI a charity supporting the use of technology in education. Follow him on Twitter @bobharrisonedu or via

Further information

  • Schools must harness cutting edge technology to engage and inspire the next generation, Damian Hinds, Daily Telegraph, August 2018:
  • Education Technology Action Group Report, ETAG, January 2015:
  • ETAG: Eight months and still waiting..., Bob Harrison, SecEd, September 2015:
  • Gender gap in computing set to worsen as ICT is scrapped, SecEd, June 2018:


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