All change at the quango
Should we be interested in the workings of organisations such as the National Council of Educational Technology, or should teachers leave it to the civil servants at the Department for Education and Employment and their nominees who control this influential quango?
The NCET's chief executive resigned recently and seven of its 12 council members are about to be replaced, so there is every likelihood that NCET will be remade. Does it matter? Many of the gains that have been made in the use of information technology in education have come from bodies such as the NCET and the Scottish Council for Educational Technology. While some educationalists feel that the NCET can seem remote from the classroom, it is unusual to hear anyone argue for its demise. What people argue about is its effectiveness and its role. With new faces about to move in, this is a time of transition, and it puts the chair of council, Heather Du Quesnay, and the officials of the IT unit at the DFEE in a particularly powerful position to influence the composition of the new council and the appointment of the new chief executive.
Rarely can someone have such an opportunity to imprint their ideas on the future of IT in education. Although Lord Nolan and his committee have imposed certain rules about the ways that influence can be exerted, it isn't yet known how those restraints will affect the way quangos are run. One new feature is the use of "independent" people to assist at the sifting and interview stage.
Heather Du Quesnay points out: "Council posts have to be advertised, and adverts were placed in the press. After that there is short-listing and there will be a conversation or interview with the short-listed people."
Who will interview? "Myself, maybe a minister, or civil servants."
It will be interesting to see if this will produce results markedlydifferent from previous practice.
Should council meetings be open and minutes published? "For myself, I am in favour of more openness. Under Nolan, there is more encouragement to be open, especially with agendas and minutes. Some of the matters that we deal with at the NCET are commercially sensitive. I expect that at the first meeting of the newly convened council we will have to make decisions about openness, about making minutes available and, if we cannot do that, finding other ways of informing people about council business.
"The way forward is clear. This organisation has to be making a significant impact on the way that teachers use the technology in the classroom. I want this technology to make the work of teachers easier, not harder, and learning more exciting. We have to get the technology to the heart of learning.
"I am proud of the way that the NCET has done some things. ILS (Integrated Learning Systems) is controversial and we have dealt with the issues professionally and fairly. What I want is for the NCET to be looking at things that can go into every classroom, things that impose on the generality of school work, things that work. I am pleased with the support materials that we have done for the School Curriculum and Assessment Authority, the managing IT material that we have done for both primary and secondary schools. The National Educational Multimedia Awards (now discontinued) were splendid."
Is the independence of the council under threat? Heather Du Quesnay is in no doubt: "I'll tell you straight - and let's not be naive about this - there is always a relationship that has to be managed with a funding department. Council has not always been as independent as it should be. We do need to be more independent of both the chief executive and the DFEE. We have to achieve greater clarity of the role of the council."
How do council members see their role? Dominic Savage is chief executive of the British Educational Suppliers Association, someone who, presumably, might have a conflict of interest when the council discusses the "confidential matters" mentioned by Heather Du Quesnay, such as supply contracts involving companies he represents.
He sees the NCET's role as fostering the kinds of partnerships that will make its mission a reality. "Three-quarters of teachers are not using IT on a regular basis in their work," he says. "We have to alter that figure. We will do that by having a closer involvement with the senior management team at the NCET. Already the role of council has begun to change. Previously, the chair was from outside education and I don't think that helped.
"The changing role of the council is going to create more openness," he claims. "You cannot have successful partnerships if things are behind closed doors and that is what we want - easy and trusting partnerships with all kinds of bodies like SCAA and the TTA (Teacher Training Agency)."
Mary Marsh, of Holland Park school, London, has been a council member since June 1996. She was appointed under the old rules where names were put forward by the chief executive or the chair to the DFEE and then interviews were held. Mary Marsh was interviewed by Robin Squire MP and a senior civil servant before she was confirmed as a council member. She now sees herself as "a critical friend of NCET".
She hopes that she will be able to contribute to national developments during her three remaining years. Her priorities are the re-establishing of a proper level of national IT support. "A council has to move carefully. Ron Dearing (the former chairman of the School Curriculum and Assessment Authority) has shown how change can be brought about without provoking anyone to close a door in his face."
What about the organisation itself? Bruce Bond, a US technology expert who served on the council while working over here with BT, once posed the following question to the NCET: "Are you doing what you ought to be doing or are you doing what you can?" The new three-year corporate plan is an attempt to answer that question belatedly. Peter Avis, schools director at the council and one of the authors of the plan, thinks that the council has tried to be all things to all people. In the future, he says, it should be a crucial part of the IT jigsaw that everyone will contribute to. In other words, the key theme of its work over the next few years will be partnership. At first glance, the plan heralds a narrower range of activity.
Mrs Du Quesnay is aware of the political pressures that will bear down on the council after the election. As an education insider she is well-placed to create and maintain some of the partnerships envisaged in the plan. As a realist, she can ensure that the council is shaped to carry out whatever priorities are desired by the next government. But such a high-profile role has its risks and does mean that she will be held responsible for the success or the failure over the next few years.