Our school system needs to change

28 June 2018

The future of work is very unlikely to offer anything to those with low skills and attainment. At best the current school system has only served 2/3 of pupils well. We now need something that works for all children if we are to give them improved life chances and avoid having to otherwise support their dependency on the State.

There is no doubt that educational technology has a great role to play as a catalyst for change. Successful schools depend on great teaching, whatever our vision of schooling. Tes analysis suggests that the country needs 47,000 more secondary teachers by 2024. Technology has the potential to add to teaching capacity and relieve this pressure.

Government messages on this challenge have been mixed.  On the one hand, the new Secretary of State, Damian Hinds MP, made welcome noises about the role of technology when first appointed. It is also rumored that he will be making a speech on the subject before August. However, it is clear that his number two, Nick Gibb MP, is less enthusiastic about edtech. When trying to stimulate support materials for Maths Mastery he specified they had to be printed. Then last week Matt Hancock MP, Secretary of State at DCMS, weighed in to the debate about mobile phones in schools. Despite saying “modern digital technology is a powerful force for good” he came down against mobile technology in schools for safeguarding reasons. At a time when school budgets are tight, measures preventing children using their own technology for learning are unhelpful.

But the Government is not alone in having mixed views. Heads seem unwilling to prioritise budgets for new technology because they are unsure they have had a return on their investment in edtech to date. They also see on their Twitter feed a consistent stream of attacks on tech from a small army of educators taking to their mobile phones in fury if anyone suggests a diminished use of paper and textbooks.

But technology can help solve some of the problems faced by schools and teachers.

There is a need to break into the adoption curve for edtech. There is good evidence that technology can successfully enhance learning where it changes pedagogic practice. This, in turn, requires its adoption to be well led in schools and at a system level. This is currently hard to foresee because the high stakes accountability system makes school leaders highly risk averse, and therefore unlikely to encourage changes in pedagogy.

The prize of breaking through this challenge is that better embedded use of technology can then increase automatic data collection, a major source of workload pressure. In turn it could then be better used for formative assessment and marking – a second workload challenge. The data generated could then be used for smarter accountability and to give teachers more granular insights in to the performance of each pupil.

This needs leadership from the top. It needs a relentless focus on learning, and how technology can best support that process. It needs Government to do more on the accessibility of devices, digital confidence, connectivity and appropriate readable content for pupils, both at school and at home. And of course, it needs teachers to receive ongoing training in how to teach using the full potential of the technology being adopted. That includes creating healthy cultures around turning off technology to reflect, on turning on Do Not Disturb functions, and on workable behaviour policies with technology.

Reform’s report is welcome in making the case for change and offering some insights in the way forward. I hope it stimulates an informed debate amongst policy makers and practitioners.

Lord Knight is Chief Education and External Officer at Tes Global and was an Education Minister from 2006-2009

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