Owen Lynch the former chief executive of Becta, talks to Dorothy Walker

5th May 2006 at 01:00
Owen Lynch rarely talks about himself. So while many people know of his leadership of the government's technology agency Becta, fewer realise that, as a head teacher, Owen was ahead of his time in the use of ICT - not only embedding technology in his school but also reaching out to pioneer community learning.

Last month, Owen stepped down as chief executive of Becta, having led the agency since its creation in 1998. At the time of his appointment, 70 per cent of teachers did not use ICT in their practice. "Today we are seeing increasingly sophisticated pedagogical application of ICT, and there has been a huge investment in infrastructure, content and training," he says.

"But what we have not yet seen is transformation in the national education system to ensure that every single learner and teacher can benefit from the successful application of ICT. It should be an entitlement for all, rather than something you get because you are in a particular school or locality."

Owen first discovered the power of ICT in the mid-1980s, as headteacher of a small rural primary in Cumbria. "Like many other schools, we had a BBC computer delivered, and we started to explore what we could do," he says. "The thing that really grabbed me was the use of control technology to explore science and design and technology. The children were building vehicles and writing programs to control them and I was learning alongside them. It was a fantastic experience. It showed me how technology could provide a context for creativity and collaboration, and encourage children to experiment and challenge their learning."

It was control technology that provided the highlight Owen remembers above all else: a choreographed "ballet" of cars and cranes that his pupils staged for a parents evening: "It was a 17-minute sequence, and the children had made every vehicle themselves - an extraordinary achievement."

In 1990 he took up the headship at Orgill Junior School, in an area of West Cumbria with significant unemployment, and set about applying the lessons he had learned. "I told my staff that technology would play a significant role in providing learning opportunities and bringing about change, and that I would invest heavily in training and resources."

In four years the school had 150 computers for its 200 pupils, one of the highest ratios in the country, and was offering its community a share in the benefits, running after-hours ICT courses that not only helped parents support their children's learning, but also helped them find work. "Many adults went on to gain jobs, and we hired five as resource managers," Owen says.

He persuaded the local authority's education director to try this approach in three other schools. The scheme went on to become CREDITS, a pound;20 million initiative which ran in more than 60 centres across the region.

When he took over at Becta, Owen focused the agency's efforts on three areas: infrastructure, content and practice. Today the emphasis is shifting, and Becta's energies are directed at helping schools take a more strategic approach to employing and managing ICT - vital, believes Owen, if schools are to keep ahead of rapid changes in technology, and take advantage of the "extraordinary learning opportunity" that now exists in the home.

"We need to invest more in helping leaders to manage technology across their entire school," he says. "We are now seeing the emergence of enterprise-wide solutions such as learning platforms which, if they are applied ineffectively, could actually set schools back. A platform can provide wonderful opportunities, but it must be led by the school's educational ambition, not by technology. And you have to have a change program. You need your investment to go into your teachers, students and community as much as it does into technology. Without that, you shouldn't be going down the learning platform route at the moment."

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