Supporting supply side reform: technology in English state education

The direction of education policy is changing. Following two decades of emphasis on centralisation, the centre of gravity of the debate is moving towards choice, diversity and personalisation. The new education debate concerns the reform of the supply side of schooling to allow greater choice and diversity.

The role of technology should be at the heart of the supply side debate. In schools, computers can allow different styles of learning. Outside of schools, communications technology can allow a transfer of information and knowledge that is clearly beneficial for learning. Universities and the NHS are two areas of the public sector which are being transformed by the use of broadband internet links.

In addition technology should also be investigated as a means of increasing efficiency, given the coming period of public spending slowdown. Technology has been at the heart of the revolution in the productivity of the private sector over the last two decades.

Most children constantly interface with technology, from using instant messaging to talk to their friends to downloading music onto their MP3 players to watching DVDs to playing computer games. In many cases they know more about how to use technology than their teachers.

Tony Blair described the enabling role of modern technology in his speech to the 2006 Labour Party Conference: “Two thirds of the country has access to the internet. Millions of people are ordering flights or books or other goods online, they are talking to their friends online, downloading music, all of it when they want to, not when the shop or office is open. The Google generation has moved beyond the idea of 9 to 5, closed on weekends and Bank Holidays. Today’s technology is profoundly empowering.”

The quality of English education needs transformational change. In the current system only 41 per cent of children achieve A*-C grades at GCSE in English, maths and science. Given the transformational impact of technology on the other aspects of life, it is appropriate to consider its potential to transform the performance of the English schools system.

There is evidence that the use of technology in education has a positive impact on learner attainment. It also has particular benefits in terms of improving student behaviour and engaging struggling students. Use of technology in teaching diversifies learning styles which is essential in the drive to “personalise” learning.

Technology resources in English state education have increased dramatically in this decade, including a doubling in the numbers of computers:

  • The number of primary pupils per computer has fallen from 12.6 in 2000 to 6.7 in 2005.
  • The number of secondary pupils per computer has fallen from 7.9 in 2000 to 4.1 in 2005.
  • Central (Department for Education and Skills) spending on ICT has increased from £108 million in 2000-01 to a projected £618 million in 2007-08.
  • The number of teachers in primary schools using computer packages in over half of lessons has increased from 20 per cent in 2002 to 36 per cent in 2005. In secondary schools the increase has been from 9 per cent to 19 per cent in the same period.
  • At secondary level more schools are setting homework that requires the use of a computer or the internet. Between 2002 and 2005 the numbers of schools setting homework “very” or “quite often” that required use of a computer rose from 13 to 30 per cent.

Social inequity is a defining characteristic of the British schools system. Technology appears to be another area in which children from less privileged backgrounds enjoy worse provision. The British Educational Communications and Technology Agency (Becta) has observed: “When working with young people, we assumed they would be skilled users of ICT, but were surprised to find that many socially disadvantaged groups lacked confidence and actively avoided ICT. After our trials, though, several initiated steps back into learning in order to learn about ICT.”

These students are also put at further disadvantage because they are less likely to have access to a computer at home. This may leave some children with no access to technology at all, a major disadvantage in a world that is increasingly engaging with technology.

There are many practical barriers to the effective implementation of technology:

  • The costs of maintaining technology. The British Educational Suppliers Association (BESA) estimates that up to 2.1 million computers are in need of replacement.
  • The poor and aging infrastructure of many school buildings.
  • The difficultly in training teachers and keeping them up to date with new developments in technology. This is something that is particularly the case in schools with a high turnover of staff.

In 2005, the Department of Education released a new strategy for the implementation of technology in education: “Harnessing Technology – Transforming Learning and Children’s Services”. The strategy has the aim of ensuring that technology is fully embedded in all schools. It places particular emphasis on the improvement of networks between schools and the community.

Evaluation of this strategy has revealed several difficulties in its implementation:

  • Currently technology is very far from being embedded in schools. In many cases its effective use is limited to a few key subjects such as English and Science. This is particularly the case at primary schools.
  • The way that resources are organised makes it particularly difficult to embed technology. The concentration of computers in computer labs and the emphasis on the purchase of desktops as opposed to laptops makes current technology very inflexible.
  • Networks between schools and the community are currently very poorly developed.
  • Many school leaders do not have an effective whole school strategy for the implementation of ICT, preventing it being used efficiently.
  • Several of the new schools buildings being built in the Building Schools for the Future programme are of low quality, presenting another barrier to effective technology implementation.

Networks need to be further developed. Broadband provision has the potential to transform the role of schools into hubs rather than exclusive centres of learning. This will have particular benefits in terms of enabling lifelong learning, in particular giving second chances to those originally failed by the school system. Better networks will also allow closer links between schools, as has been suggested for the Government’s new “trust schools”.

In the majority of schools technology is used in the traditional classroom setting. In some innovative schools, this is not the case, such as Djangoly Academy in Nottingham. Schools in Sweden, including those in the Kunskapsskolan chain, are also making good use of networks, enabling children to access a range of documents from home. Innovative use of technology is essential in order to determine its full potential.

For these schools technology clearly aids the development of modern personalised choice-based learning. The implication of this study is that the last period of English schools policy – top-down, inputs-led and centralised – has not realised technology’s potential benefits.

As all political parties move away from a centralised approach towards a focus on the individual pupil and on supply side reform, it is likely that the beneficial role of technology will increase. Key themes in this new environment will be devolved, pupil number-led budgets and both competition and co-operation between groups of schools.