Pulling the plug – Why did the EdTech Demonstrator Programme have to end?

group of school students using laptops and tablets

John Galloway ponders the government’s reasons for calling time on its EdTech Demonstrator programme…

John Galloway
by John Galloway

Sometimes I just don’t get it.

Why, when its own research shows the underdeveloped use of technology in schools, does the DfE pull the plug on the only programme it has in place to help develop that capacity?

Just as they publish a research report titled ‘Education Technology: Exploring digital maturity in schools’ – which finds only 9% of schools in England can be considered ‘digitally mature’ – they cancel the EdTech Demonstrator programme intended to improve schools’ use of technology.

It makes you wonder if they know what they’re doing. But I think they probably do.

Peer learning

Readers with long memories may remember BECTA – a DfE-funded edtech body that ended up on the ‘bonfire of the quangos’ that followed in the wake of the 2010 general election. For some years afterwards, many of us across the education sector mourned the subsequent loss of edtech support and strategic leadership – only to cheer in 2019, when the DfE seemed to rediscover the importance of technology in schools and produced a new edtech strategy.

One year later, they gave us the EdTech Demonstrator programme. Built around the principle of peer learning, it connected schools some way down the road of digital development with others still charting a route – and it worked. Probably. Because we’ve yet to see any evaluations.

Year one was lead by a consortium including LGfL and the Education Foundation, with Sheffield Hallam University assigned the task of evaluating it. In year two the consortium changed, so that United Learning (a national MAT) took the lead, with ImpactEd doing the evaluation.

To date, no evaluations have been published, yet the programme has been cancelled. Why? Who knows. Maybe it wasn’t very good – although anecdotally, many schools speak favourably of it. Even if it wasn’t successful, we should still be able to learn from whatever mistakes might have been made. Nor have we heard much more about that 2019 strategy and how – or even if – it’s progressing.

Driving change

That’s not to say that the DfE has given up on offering schools support with edtech altogether. The ‘Meeting digital and technology standards in schools and colleges’ guidance is still there, offering advice on procurement. So they’ll help you get the kit, but seem less interested in what you do with it.

That might be because the government’s report on digital maturity struggled to establish a link between the use of edtech and attainment. For instance, at KS4 there was no correlation between any of the three pillars of digital maturity – technology, capability and strategy – and student outcomes – albeit with the caveat that the report’s sample size of 146 secondary schools wasn’t large enough to provide definitive answers.

Then there’s COVID-19. There’s nothing like a crisis for driving change and innovation, and so it was that schools took a massive leap forward in their use of technology for teaching and learning over the last couple of years. Initially, the lockdowns schools endured underlined marked disparities in access to devices and internet connections between learners, while also highlighting the need for rapid improvements to students’ ICT skills so they could learn online.

The planning we need

The ending of the EdTech Demonstrator programme appears to be partly based on the premise that with the pandemic ‘now behind us’, schools no longer need help with online teaching and learning – yet its origins pre-date the pandemic. Or perhaps its prescription was simply anathema to a government that would prefer to see decision-making in schools driven by market forces, rather than evidence and expert guidance.

Whatever the case, we still need to help teachers and learners make the best possible use of the powerful tools at their disposal, while simultaneously preparing for the next virulent disease to come our way. It would be complacent to believe that the challenge of COVID-19 was a one-off.

Yes, schools and teachers rose to the occasion brilliantly. It helped to advance the use of technology for teaching and learning exponentially. But planning for change is still far preferable to innovating in response to a national emergency.

John Galloway is a freelance writer, consultant and trainer specialising in educational technology and SEND

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