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The strange story of how Damian Hinds put a spring in ed tech's step

The ed-tech sector has long been in the political wilderness, but, with the arrival of a new education secretary, could that be about to change?

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The ed-tech sector has long been in the political wilderness, but, with the arrival of a new education secretary, could that be about to change?

It’s hard to predict how a Cabinet reshuffle will play out. Who, for example, would have thought that Justine Greening, considered a safe pair of hands and a Theresa May loyalist when she was appointed education secretary, would so quickly turn into the PM’s bête noire?

Similarly, pretty much no one would have said that the appointment of a true-blue grammar and faith school fan as Greening’s replacement would, pretty much immediately, inject the ed-tech sector with a rare buzz of confidence.

But it has. Damian Hinds' first major speech as education secretary was a preview to the ed-tech trade show Bett, and while it would have been impossible for him to have swerved digital altogether, observers were fairly amazed at his enthusiasm for all things whizzy.

Contrary to rumours at the time, Hinds wasn’t simply going through the motions with a speech written for Justine Greening to deliver: I’m told he had significantly added to it and edited it himself.

And then on Wednesday, at the launch of a the Edtech 50, a list of high-performing entrepreneurs, products and projects, the education secretary provided the forward for its programme, which if anything was even more effusive than his pre-Bett speech.

Hinds, it would seem, might just be a techie.

At the Edtech 50 reception, the atmosphere was almost stunned. After years of being beaten over the head by a succession of Tory ministers, not least of all Nick “chalk-and-talk” Gibb, it was as if they couldn’t believe their luck. EdtechUK boss Ty Goddard, the chap behind the list, appeared almost giddy that finally (FINALLY!) there was a politician who “gets it”.

The context, however, has changed. Gone was most of the future-gazing nonsense – no one mentioned "jobs that are yet to be invented" or "disrupting the 19th-century model of teaching". The direction of travel was very much about how practical tech could help teachers to reduce workload and costs, and drive curriculum efficiencies.

More than one guest mentioned this Tes piece by Rachel Wolf last year on how ed tech could be pedagogically-neutral; another of the 50 excitedly told me about his platform for digital textbooks; another of the 50 was Bruno Reddy, the teacher behind Times Table Rockstars – a platform that excels at getting children to memorise their times tables. Times tables and textbooks? Surely even Nick Gibb’s ears would prick up.

The ed-tech sector, it would seem, is changing its pitch: revolutions are out, and iterative – boring, even – curriculum-support is in. And then, like planets aligning, along comes an education secretary, who, it would seem, is more than prepared to give them a hearing.

This series of events is so unlikely that even writing this piece would have been unthinkable two months ago.

One warning, however. Much of the language at the Edtech 50 event would have been way more at home at a San Fran brunch than in a staffroom. Without a change to this gobbledygook, most teachers will continue to instinctively write off ed tech as snake oil, and this improbable opportunity will be missed.

Ed Dorrell is head of content at Tes. He tweets @Ed_Dorrell

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