ICTeachers – a revolution in schooling?

What's the educational agenda behind New Labour's interest in the use of ICT in schools?

Toby Marshall

Topics Politics

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For some time it has been clear that the hype surrounding the educational potential of Information and Communications Technology (ICT) is an expression of deeper, and regressive, trends in education.

Without a doubt, ICT is a useful new teaching tool, and investment in, and experimentation with, this technology should be supported for this reason. But to argue that ICT could ‘transform’ or ‘revolutionise’ schooling was always to confuse the ends and the means of education, and to evade the more fundamental questions of teachers’ professionalism and the curriculum.

The elevation of ICT was a characteristic trope of the early period of New Labour. In opposition, New Labour acolyte Lord Stevenson conducted an ‘independent’ inquiry into the use of this technology, in which he outlined a vision of the future in which ‘ICT has permeated the entirety of education’.

But for those who questioned his content-lite and technocratic vision, Stevenson was at least honest in his response. Making ICT a key national educational priority was an ‘act of faith’, he concluded, based on nothing more than the commonsense observation that other fields of activity, such as business, had made use of this technology (1).

New Labour, however, needed little converting. In its 1997 manifesto, promoting ‘access to technology’ was one of its six education pledges, designed to demonstrate that New Labour was ‘the pioneer of new thinking.’ And not long after its general election victory, targets for school connectivity were set, and a new educational portal called the National Grid for Learning (NGfL) was established (2).

In their own terms, there was nothing wrong with these initiatives. Schools should have access to the latest technology, and the NGfL – which reviews and provides online material for teachers – was no doubt a useful guide for some. The critical point was that these technology-based initiatives did not, in themselves, constitute a strategy for the reorganisation of education.

The 1997 manifesto indicates how technology came to assume such an elevated status within New Labour’s educational thinking. It is noticeable that for all the tough talk of standards and failing schools, Labour had no real view on the content of schooling – over and above the obvious focus on the three Rs. This contributed to the elevation of ICT – after all, the manifesto had to say something.

ICT fitted the bill for more specific reasons. Extending schools’ connectivity gave the appearance of hi-tech modernisation and ‘new thinking’, even if the technology was often used for highly primitive educational tasks, and had, in fact, been a feature of many schools for nearly 20 years.

But perhaps more importantly, ICT had no fixed educational meaning, and so its promotion did not require that New Labour elaborate, or defend, any particular educational agenda.

More recently, however, it would appear that ICT has dropped down the order of New Labour’s educational priorities, and government agencies seem to have become more measured in their promotion of ICT. So is it fair to ask, as Merlin John, the Times Educational Supplement’s online editor did in June 2001, whether ‘the sheen has come off ICT?’. And if this is the case, does it indicate that New Labour has developed a substantive educational agenda for its second term?

At one level, the technological framing of complex educational problems remains a key feature of minister’s speeches and government initiatives. Speaking at the BETT (British Education Technology and Training) conference in 2001, the first-ever – and rather extravagantly titled – minister of learning and technology Michael Wills, declared that central government had planned to invest some £1.8billion in schools-based ICT initiatives, on the grounds that ICT was a ‘uniquely potent educational tool’ destined to be a defining feature of the ‘classroom of the future’ (3).

To give weight to his prediction, Wills announced the findings of a major research project conducted by the British Educational Communications and Technology Agency (BECTA), which demonstrated, he claimed, that the effective use of ICT could make a decisive contribution to the raising of educational standards.

In fact, the BECTA research demonstrated nothing quite so simple. It showed that in some subjects many primary schools with good ICT resources actually performed worse than those with less equipment, and that the quality of a school’s management was often a stronger predictor of achievement than the level of ICT resources. And while the report did show that those schools that effectively used ICT performed better than those that used it poorly, it did not conclusively demonstrate that it was the technology, rather than the quality of the teachers, that made the schools effective (4).

Yet even though the elevation of technology remains a feature of discussions about education, it is also true, as Merlin John points out, that in New Labour’s 2001 election campaign ICT assumed less significance than it had previously. In the manifesto itself, New Labour notes the progress that has been made in terms of access, and its plans for a new ‘online curriculum’. But it made no new election pledges with regards to this technology (5).

This apparent demotion of ICT followed two reports, published by the Office for Standards in Education (OfSTED) and what was then called the Department for Education and Employment (DfEE) in April 2001, which seemed to show that the government’s position on ICT in schools had become more measured.

The first of these, OfSTED’s ICT in Schools, included strident criticisms of the ways in which ICT was being used in schools, arguing that ‘the contribution of ICT to the raising of standards in individual subjects remains variable’ and that ‘good practice remains uncommon’, with ICT often being used as if it were an end itself, rather than a tool (6).

But at the same time, OfSTED held fast to one of the central prejudices bedevilling the discussion of ICT in schools – the assumption that, to be an effective teacher in the modern world, one must necessarily make use of a technology. This prejudice is enforced by the national curriculum, which requires that ICT be used in almost all subjects regardless of the preferences of the teacher, and which ensures that the technology is often used for no better reason than to comply with external regulations.

At the same time, the government consultation paper Curriculum Online adopted an uncharacteristically reserved tone in its promotion of ICT. At its launch, then secretary of state for education David Blunkett argued that the use of ICT in schools needed to be balanced with more ‘traditional teaching methods’. And aside from mixing up teaching methods, which are independent of technology, and teaching tools, his statement was of interest because it was uncharacteristic of the government’s usually more fervent statements in relation to the educational potential of ICT (7).

Following his opening remarks, Blunkett then outlined the specific role that he expected ICT to play in terms of New Labour’s plans for the curriculum in its second term. ICT, he argued, made possible the delivery of highly specialised content to small groups of pupils, in forms that could be tailored to the unique learning styles of individual pupils. And this, he concluded, made it possible to develop a truly ‘individualised’ curriculum customised to the unique preferences and aptitudes of pupils.

But while New Labour’s ‘individualised’ curriculum may well be a technical possibility, it is far from clear that this is educationally desirable. Surely the primary function of the school curriculum is to expose pupils to a range of ideas and skills, the selection of which should not be made on the basis of an individual pupil’s preferences, but on the expert judgement of those able to evaluate their cultural significance and educational value (8).

The worry, for both educationalists and advocates of the educational use of ICT, is that this technology is in danger of being used to effect the further fragmentation of the school curriculum. In doing so, the use of ICT could contribute to the lowering of educational standards in the UK.

In many respects, the debate about the educational use of ICT is still in its infancy. But two key issues can be clarified.

The promotion of ICT works best when it is organic and volitional, using the initiative of teachers – rather than regulatory compliance – as its driver. This is demonstrated by OfSTED’s report on ICT in Schools, which shows that the imposition of ICT leads to unthinking and formulaic teaching practice.

Technology is a tool, not a strategy. But it is a powerful tool nonetheless, which could be used to implement progressive educational strategies as well as regressive ones. Unfortunately, it seems that in the current policy climate, the promotion of ICT is likely to bring about a hi-tech lowering of standards.

Toby Marshall teaches media studies in east London.

Read on:

From ABC to ICT, by Helene Guldberg

spiked-seminars: The lessons of ICT and education, by Toby Marshall and Chris Yapp

Teaching by telly, by Toby Marshall

Computers and teachers: a lesson, by Joanna Williams

spiked-issue: Education

(1) Information and Communications Technology in UK Schools – An Independent Inquiry (1996/7) by the Independent ICT in Schools Commission

(2) The New Labour 1997 election manifesto

(3) Michael Wills’ BETT 2001 speech, 10 January 2001

(4) Primary Schools of the Future – Achieving Today BECTA, (2000)

(5) Click here to download a copy of New Labour’s 2001 election manifesto, Ambitions for Britain, in .pdf format

(6) Click here to download a copy of ICT in Schools – The Impact of Government Initiatives, OfSTED, 2000, in .pdf format

(7) Curriculum Online – A Consultation Paper, DfEE, 2001

(8) For more details on New Labour’s plans for the school curriculum, see Fragmenting education by David Perks and Toby Marshall

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

Topics Politics


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