Revolutionary rocket from Stevenson

27th June 1997 at 01:00
You would not expect the chairman of the Pearson media empire to be an ally of the classroom practitioner. But the man Tony Blair asked to produce his hi-tech strategy is angry at the way the profession was demeaned under the Conservatives. As he tells Jack Kenny, he believes teachers are central to Britain's future

Apart from the fact that Dennis Stevenson - at a personal cost of Pounds 100,000 - has produced a comprehensive report for Tony Blair on what he insists on calling ICT (Information and Communications Technology), he is remarkable for the insight that he gives into the new government and its attitude to information technology. Obviously IT, or ICT, is important - but why Stevenson?

When you meet him, he is not the picture of a Labour activist. He has all the trappings of someone quite different. Sitting in an exquisitely furnished room in Pall Mall, he seems patrician, urbane and very serious. With a Scottish Presbyterian background, he studied at King's College, Cambridge and his own children have gone to public school.

When he tells you that in his youth he was a Young Socialist, you have difficulty reconciling that with his present position of chairman of the Pearson group, one of the largest media groups in Europe. But you believe him.

He claims to have a schizoid life: working half in business and half in socially useful occupations like being chair of the trustees of the Tate Gallery. Is this the new face of a fresh establishment: high-minded, blending business success with an acute social conscience?

"I have always been left of centre as well as a successful entrepreneur, " he says. He now believes that it is as socially useful to create wealth and employment as it is to be a social worker. He has always invested part of his income in areas such as social research and has always spent much of his time doing other things than working.

In 1972, Peter Walker, a member of the Heath government, asked him to chair an independent government commission looking at the role of the voluntary sector, young people and the environment. "That work earned me the undying enmity of Mrs Thatcher," he says, "because most of it was an attack on her work as Secretary of State for Education.

"The next year Peter Walker made me chairman of the development corporation of the new towns at Aycliffe and Peterlee. Tony Blair asked me to do the ICT review about 18 months ago. He wanted an independent review and I spent Pounds 100,000 of my own money making sure that it was independent. The leader of an opposition has never commissioned a report like this before: it amounts to what is virtually a Royal Commission in opposition."

Now that many of the things that are outlined in the report could happen, what are his priorities? The answer was instantaneous: "Teachers, teachers, teachers." As the report points out, training has been badly neglected. "I feel that the recently issued figures that 85 per cent of teachers use IT in their work to be somewhat of an exaggeration. My observations, and those of the people who worked with me, do not bear out thosefigures.

"I am very sympathetic to teachers. If I could do only one thing, it would be to invest and invest and invest so that 95 per cent of the teachers over the next 10-year period will feel comfortable with ICT. That on its own would have a dynamic effect on the education system. Of course, I can understand why there are Luddites, but they are wrong.

"For years teachers have been a demeaned resource. My 18-year-old son has shown an inclination to go into teaching. He is very gifted and he was happier than I have ever seen him when he was working in school. We met some of his former teachers but they said, 'Surely, you will not let him go into teaching. ' Terrible! My wife and I would die happy if we thought that he would go into teaching."

The Stevenson report is even-handed and deals brusquely with one or two cherished Labour watchwords. First, one Labour politician, Anne Campbell, has been antagonising IT educationists for a couple of years with the argument that second-hand computers are a solution to the resource issues. Thankfully Stevenson sees that policy for the nonsense that it is.

Second, there was the idea that a massive hardware spend could be a solution. A computer for every child was a mantra not so long ago. "What we found was that the teachers, as they are at the moment, would not be able to take advantage of such resourcing. The money would quite simply be wasted. I am not a techie or a technophobe but my strong prejudice would be to make computers more easily available to teachers.

"The new government seems to have been persuaded about the priority of initial teacher training. One of the things that this government will do, I hope, is to get the Teacher Training Agency (TTA) and the Department for Education and Employment (DFEE) to do some more closely defined things than happened under the previous administration."

The question of the School Curriculum and Assessment Authority and the examination boards and their attitudes to IT apparently took up a great deal of time. There is a cadre of people who feel that IT developments are being slowed by the reluctance of SCAA and the exam boards to include IT in meaningful ways at key stage 4.

Stevenson makes no secret of the fact that if some members of his group had had their way, the whole report could well have been taken up with that issue. It is felt that if IT is going to permeate the curriculum then some way, no matter how difficult the task might be, must be found to use IT and assess it in the major curriculum subjects at key stage 4. "All this is clearly a need whose time has come. It is not a trivial or an easy matter to get right but it must be done."

One of the most startling parts of the report are the figures about the numbers of machines in homes: it is believed that 22 per cent of UK households have a home computer. Projections suggest that this figure could grow to 44 per cent by 2000. "All that we do in the report is to say that this vast pool must be used and harnessed. We also point out that a number of students will be left out. I feel sure that imaginative teachers will be looking at the school and the home as one, and seeing the resources that are held jointly as one. The strides in connectivity will make this possible."

How will connectivity be dealt with? "I must admit I am hazy on the relationship between the regulator (OFTEL) and BT. I have a narrow perspective on it. It is quite clearly in the common-sense interest of UK Ltd for a way to be found for BT to allow schools to use the network in a way that is affordable and, above all, predictable. Even the fees that have been mentioned are a mountain for a primary school. It all has to happen and it will happen. I take a lot of comfort from the fact that Don Cruickshank of OFTEL feels that it is deliverable within the regulatory framework.

"I feel passionately that costs must come down, and, if necessary, I will intercede to make sure that it happens. You are either a believer or not. The question is: do we want the children of this country to have access to all the things that can be accessed through networks? For crying out loud, we have this very rich country, this huge telecommunications industry and it is a tiny mathematical change to enable this to happen. It is clearly acceptable for BT to be able to recover the losses that it will make from another part of its business."

It is the individual teacher who is at the heart of Stevenson's thinking and idealism. "Go back 100 years; then the teacher was the centre of society, a leading figure, the giver of knowledge. Here is my vision. We need to reposition the way that teachers are viewed. The vision of the future should be that if you want a group who know about ITC, to understand it at all levels, how it helps you to lead a fuller life, to seek out learning, then go to teachers. ITC can restore teachers to the position that they held 100 years ago. This is romanticising a little but not much. I believe fundamentally in teachers: we cannot do a thing without them."

Where next? Does the Stevenson work stop at this point? "Tony Blair has asked me to head up a standing committee and we are now trying to work out exactly what we should be doing. I don't yet have a clear perspective on it. At the moment there is too much Chinese whispering going on.

"We have a lot of credibility and we are in a relatively strong position. I do not want to become some kind of quango but I feel that I have a duty to continue the work, to ensure that much that we have outlined is implemented. There is clearly a role for someone with the right people around him to knock heads together.

"There are so many different interests in ITC. There is an advisory role but this sector has more than enough advice. I am discussing with the DFEE and No 10 how some of these things can be achieved. You may never hear of me again because I may make a judgment that it is all happening anyway and I will just get in the way."

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