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Learners must lead

Policy makers are daunted by the expertise of youthful ICT enthusiasts, says Stephen Heppell

Some years back, in a conversation with senior policy makers from the Department for Education and Skills, it became clear that much of the progress schools and students were making with ICT was passing them by.

Of course, they knew what children should be doing the curriculum was prescriptive enough, and they knew what was happening to those prescriptions, but this all lagged a long way behind practice. Children are ingenious, teachers are imaginative and ICT is seductive. As a consequence, progress is rapid and diverse.

I offered to assemble a sample of students as evidence of that progress so that the policy makers could chat to them about what they were doing. At the end of the first get-together I asked one politician for a view. "Frankly," he volunteered, "I'm terrified! They are so far ahead of where I thought we were."

Thus began what has become an annual event: Be Very Afraid, held at the British Academy of Film and Television Arts (Bafta) with 10 to 12 institutions featured each year. The age range spans primary to university level and each year around 200 wielders of influence, plus some celebrities from cinema and TV, are invited along. A DVD captures the student interviews and is widely circulated after the event. The website takes a huge number of hits from all round the world.

The diversity is electrifying, but one item is always on show: the engagement of the learners when talking about their projects. They share a language of technology, ambition and delight, without age barriers.

Be Very Afraid poses a number of questions for policy makers. The work on show reveals an agility and ambition that policy limits rather than encourages. Many classrooms have become laboratories of learning with children as researchers, exploring and refining what is effective practice.

A central task for policy in the last century was to lead practice forwards; in the 21st century a major task is to follow the lead of our learners and learning professionals, ensuring that ambition and inclusion remain central to our shared vision of where learning might be going.

Stephen Heppell is an educationist and media guru


* The possibilities of new technologies. Professor Stephen Heppell brings to the TES show an expanded version of his Bafta event, Be Very Afraid the Classroom Story.

* Ten seminars explore new ideas. Doug Brown, ICT in schools manager at the Department for Children, Schools and the Family, unveils the latest e-learning strategies and the work of Becta and Futurelab.

* John Furness from Stepping Stones School in Surrey looks at how digital technology can boost the self-esteem of youngsters. He draws on Professor Heppell's work, which, he says, has transformed the way his pupils see themselves.

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