"I believe ICT will make a crucial difference to the quality of teaching"
Becta, the British Educational Communications and Technology Agency, rose from the ashes of the troubled National Council for Educational Technology (NCET) when education secretary David Blunkett announced its creation at the BETT technology exhibition in 1998.
He also confirmed that NCET acting chief executive, Owen Lynch, would run the new organisation. Lynch took over from Margaret Bell, who resigned in January 1997 after five years at the helm.
It could be said that Lynch, the 51-year-old former head of Orgill primary in Cumbria, got the job by default. After a long selection process, no replacement for Bell was found and the job fell, initially for six months, to the longest-serving member of the NCET board. However, it would be churlish to question Lynch's background. His school made some of the most sophisticated use of ICT of any primary in the country and co-ran a major community regeneration IT skills project.
Since BECTA was set up he has focused the Coventry-based organisation on three key areas: infrastructure, content and practice. All need to be in harmony if the agency is to fulfil its aim of supporting the Government and national agencies in the use and development of information and communications technology (ICT) to raise standards in education.
Practice, Lynch says, is the "most crucial area at this point in time and I cannot see that changing. It's the one we have to give most of our energy to." In recognition of its importance, BECTA earlier this year set up an evidence and practice directorate, to complement those associated with the National Grid for Learning and schools, lifelong learning, and corporate services.
Respected academic Dr Angela McFarlane, its first director, was lured away to a professorship at Bristol University after just five months, and Lynch has every confidence in the ability of Niel McLean, presently BECTA's director of schools, to take over. "The new directorate will bring together research that has been done in the past in a framework that is more accessible in terms of the lessons that can be learned and the impact of ICT, and start to map out where further research needs to be done," he says.
Linking research evidence to good practice will help civil servants and politicians form policy in the future, as well as aiding teachers to use ICT more effectively in the classroom. "I absolutely believe that ICT will make a crucial difference to the quality of teaching and learning, and to the efficiency and effectiveness of teachers and schools, but there is very little evidence to support that to a degree that is irrefutable."
Critics of BECTA often question how it assists the average teacher, and Lynch says that he wants more funding to get better advice across to more. One major teacher resource BECTA is responible for is the Virtual Teacher Centre, part of the National Grid for Learning.
A staff member who did not want to be named believes the agency does a good job of "preaching to the converted", but needs to do more to reach teachers who remain unconvinced about the benefits of technology.
One recent innovation that will benefit many schools is the creation of an advisory group on telecommunications, to give advice on selecting the right type of Internet access at the right price from an ever-growing number of providers. Lynch stresses that BECTA wants to have an impact on the education system as a whole, meaning that many of its initiatives are carried out behind the scenes alongside other government drives, such as improving literacy and numeracy standards or slashing the administrative burden on teachers.
Although its basic annual budget has hovered around pound;5 million for the past five years, BECTA's staff numbers have grown from 95 to about 150 due to earmarked funding. Lynch says he is happy with his team, but the in-demand skills his staff have mean they can often command much higher salaries in the commercial world.
While the Government funds the agency, it is not obliged to always take its advice - a fact Lynch readily admits. "I'm not naive enough to assume that BECTA holds the font of all knowledge and at times the Department for Education and Employment will have a different view to us, but that's the nature of life," he says. "But we're an organisation that is increasingly listened to in terms of the advice we give, whether it's in the commercial, educational or political world."
Lynch adds that a key strength of BECTA is its ability to work across those three very different spheres and points to the "managed services" initiative as a good example. "We believe that we can only do things that have a systemic impact through partnerships with the different communities and different groups within them."
Another similar exercise was its role in vetting the machines and suppliers participating in the DFEE's Computers for Teachers rebate scheme run earlier this year. Putting aside the problems with tax and payments, Lynch rejects the suggestion that it was not as successful as it could have been, pointing out that another 29,000 of England's 400,000 teachers now have personal access to a computer. Many more would have applied had more than pound;20 million been available. "It was the right approach at that moment in time; lessons have been learned and it may be that in the future the mechanism will be different."
It is not surprising to hear Lynch agree that the Government needs an agency with many of the characteristics that BECTA possesses. He adds that another of BECTA's strengths is its ability to adapt to changing circumstances. With a Government determined to drive up standards in education and use ICT to help do so, flexibility is a vital characteristic indeed.