End of edtech help for schools ‘a step backwards’

After schools embraced edtech in the pandemic like never before, the vice chairman of NAACE explains why it’s the wrong time to pull the plug on a programme designed to help them adopt technology as effectively as possible
1st July 2022, 3:15pm


End of edtech help for schools ‘a step backwards’

Power, off

The national vision for edtech has been clear to some for more than 20 years - especially in the early 2000s, when it was supported by a robust strategy, a chunk of investment and an experienced brain or two in charge.

It’s uncanny how “current” much of the policy objectives were - safeguarding online, equality of access from home, investment in training and a focus on empowering learners with technology.

It was all going swimmingly until 2010, when - bang - the 2010 Spending Review from the new crew in government commenced a decade of stagnation, strategic fog and what the visiting professor of the University of Wolverhampton and edtech commentator Bob Harrison deftly terms “a tsunami of techno-scepticism”.

Reinvigorating the strategy

It was only in 2019 that the tsunami subsided and a glimmer of light appeared in the form of the Department for Education’s EdTech Strategy.

It was a humble document, supported by optimistic messaging, that seemed to understand the day-to-day reality around teacher workload, inclusion, and that new investment, training and support with the right technology should be part of the solution.

The momentum increased when the edtech demonstrator schools initiative was launched in spring 2020. Around 50 schools were each provided with up to £200,000 to support their peers with effective use of technology.

They worked with their schools on a one-to-one basis according to need, and also delivered a calendar of webinars, continuing professional development and guidance content.

Technology, officially, had an essential role to play in our education system again, and mechanisms and funding to deliver it had returned. Hoorah!

The pandemic arrives 

The new challenge, though, was how to inform, persuade and help 25,000 schools to understand this, then empower each of them to embed the use of technology.

This would ordinarily take years of nurture, investment of time and resource and also culture change. But the nation experienced a short cut, courtesy of Covid-19.

It landed immediately after the launch of the edtech demonstrator schools with an almighty, obliterating thud. The legal requirement to provide teaching to pupils in their homes brought edtech to front and centre as no amount of persuasion and policy announcements ever could.

The great news is that the resource was there.

A flourishing national initiative was in place to support schools, backed by funded implementation of Microsoft or Google platforms to enable remote education, the rollout of thousands of pupil devices, 4G dongles and more.

Of course, the fact that there was little due diligence around these decisions, and that allocation of devices was delayed and scatter-gunned, was flagged by a vocal minority.

And who knew that these devices needed setting up, configuring and charging every few hours, and that teachers needed to know how to use them? Or that they’d get nicked?

Such minor details were swept under the carpet: the country, and our schools, had bigger fish to fry.

No time to spare

The start of the autumn term 2020 arrived with a mixed feeling of exhaustion and cautious optimism that the pandemic would shortly be behind us.

The “new normal” was supposedly coming into focus. We spoke of not losing momentum with technology, not falling back into old habits and of embracing the new dawn that our focus on technology had brought.

Alas, though, Covid came back and the carnage continued. Shattered, bewildered school senior leadership teams were pulled from pillar to post, with staffing challenges amplified by a lack of supply teachers.

Pupil attendance, ongoing home-learning, staggered start and finish times, keeping parents on side (and who remembers bubbles popping?) - and the pain of it all compounded by what many viewed as relentless, overly engineered DfE guidance.

An excellent, relevant (though somewhat random) calendar of edtech demonstrator school activity continued, as did the game-changing one-to-one support for schools. Great news.

Cutting through the noise

Promoting this much-needed free support was, however, beset by the notorious challenges of “marketing to education”. There was a need to cut through the noise with a clear, compelling message and call to action.

Compared to the noise and ripple effect of all-things Covid, it wasn’t quite the ticket; not quite loud or compelling enough. It was a low-profile yet golden sideshow, managed by experienced educators, with content - more than communication - at its core.

It was one that focused more on the substance and the “what”, than the outcomes and the “why”.

The result, as I understand it, was that data-driven key performance indicators were not being hit. We were not showing sufficient evidence of impact and value for money.

But here’s the thing. As those in marketing know, shifts in thinking and awareness are not measurable. Changes in mindset translate into action over time. The clear market need was being awoken but had not yet translated into demand.

Who, now, wants an electric car but hasn’t yet made enquiries?

Also, some schools still don’t sufficiently understand the challenges they have with technology and so don’t seek to address them. We were providing a service many schools didn’t know they needed.

Finding the time 

Some did squeeze the time in - webinars were watched and one-to-one workshops were had. But then came implementation by overburdened IT teams, end-user training and top-level change management.

Proactive multi-academy trusts did well, helped by the fact they can afford dedicated “school improvement advisers” and “educational technologists”.

This allowed them to provide the sustained focus needed, and they had the knowledge, skills and buying power to procure the right technology and provide the right training with the right ongoing support.

The edtech demonstrator schools had started to turn the tide, highlighting the importance of digital strategy, effective procurement, assistive edtech for special educational needs and disability, training schools in day-to-day use and lots more.

And on the same bandwagon are the loud drums of the marketing powerhouses Microsoft and Google, backed by a continual stream of other webinars, podcasts, virtual fireside chats and more.

Demonstrator schools I’ve spoken to told me of a “final flurry” of interest in recent months. When the monsters of Covid were in decline, schools have had the head space to look at “important not urgent” activity. And technology is near the top of the list.

Coming to a close

At the end of July 2022, though, the edtech demonstrator schools will close, with the DfE claiming that the service is no longer needed after Covid has subsided. This means applications for direct support have closed today.

For some schools, particularly during school closures, the support of the demonstrator schools was transformative. For others, they helped sow the seed of change for embracing technology. The majority of schools, though, hadn’t engaged.

So, where are we now?

There’s an ongoing sound of pennies dropping and, more than ever, schools and trusts are actively exploring and planning how technology will help them shape their futures. But they are sadly deprived of access to a programme that could have advised them on how to do this best, shaped by frontline insights.

Yet there is no doubt that edtech will continue to grow in schools - it has become an unstoppable juggernaut. The number and complexity of solutions will increase, as will the risk of poor choices and half-baked plans for sustained implementation.

All this signals that the need for a bigger, bolder, independent support network is greater than ever.

It’s completely the wrong time for the DfE to pull the plug on an initiative that was gathering some good momentum. A gap is being left - and bewilderment, abandonment, and sales and marketing patter are waiting to fill it.

Naace, a charity dedicated to technology in education, of which I am vice-chair, remains to help - not least with our self-review framework, which hundreds of schools are currently using as their guide.

There are other beacons of innovation, too, driven by companies and sector thought leaders, influencers, educators and communities, such as the Association of Network Managers for Education.

Big business is also working to upskill their users, and informal peer-led sharing is commonplace on social media and elsewhere.

Where government policy fails, I suspect these vibrant communities of innovation will help us succeed.

Ed Fairfield is vice-chair of Naace: the EdTech Association, commercial manager at Elementary Technology and a school governor overseeing ICT provision. He tweets @mreddtech

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