From scaffolding to skyscraper

31st March 2006 at 01:00
Jack Kenny talks to Becta's Niel McLean, who is passionate about building ICT into learning

If you hear Niel McLean talk to an audience of teachers, he reaches out all the time to draw them in. Constantly seeking reassurance, "Is this making sense?" he will ask; "Am I rambling?" Talking recently about the Self-Review Framework that Becta is introducing, the diffidence is gone.

You get the impression of someone with a passion who is determined to crack the problem of infusing ICT into learning.

Why is it taking so long to get ICT into the DNA of schools?

If you are looking into the question of why individuals are not changing, or not changing fast enough, don't problematise the individuals. They are probably the victims of institutions or institutional forces that are making it difficult for them to change. With Becta's strategy for change, we are looking for a change in the system rather than for individuals to do a few more things. That is at the heart of it. I'd argue that it's beyond schools; not just institutions at a local level, but national institutions that also need to change.

How does the Self-Review Framework operate?

What it does is to identify individual things: managing the curriculum or not; managing resources or not; managing teaching or learning. It is supposed to identify the blocks and point to intelligent ways of moving forward and doing something about the problems.

Might everyone going through the same framework simply produce a kind of blandness?

Yes, there is that risk. All you can do is put in checks and balances. You need to look at the practitioner voice, the policy voice. You need to get the evidence; find what is practicable for real people. The final thing is that you keep on pushing back all the time.

Might people turn round and say that the framework is a counsel of perfection?

We have had to go through this to ensure that it is all practicable. We don't want people to feel that there is only one way. You can't build in innovation, what you can do is to create a climate and system where innovation is likely to flourish because the professional development is right, the management is right. What I will be depressed about is if people think that they can turn their brain off and just use our framework. It is an enabling mechanism, a starting point.

Some people argue that "top down" change is not good, it doesn't last.

When teachers talk to me about all the things that are stopping them making more use of ICT, they always come back to whole-school issues. Changing those things will not guarantee innovation, but if you don't change them you will kill innovation stone dead.

Steps like embedding ICT into the curriculum have not happened yet. Are schools ready? Won't some be depressed by what the framework tells them?

Yes they will. We have to look at how we can support some schools through this, and what is the role of the local education authorities and other support organisations?

Who is this aimed at?

We're targeting those schools that recognise they have a problem with ICT and are willing to take on self-review. As we grow a critical mass, we want to turn our attention to schools that might need to be challenged to engage. We need to recognise that for some schools ICT can only be addressed when more fundamental problems are. There will always be the maverick schools that do great things by going against the trend.

What is the real gain for schools?

It is an opportunity to step back and think systematically about getting it right at whole-school level. It is not about the ICT co-ordinator ticking boxes on a screen. It will give a clear sense of where they are because it involves benchmarking. When they find out where they are, they will be able to see where they stand in relation to everyone else in the country, to their peers. That usually makes people feel better. They are not alone.

Can you see any problems?

There is a risk if all this is taken on by a small group in a school; that is not an institution. There is little that we can do to stop misuse, say like a deputy head filling it all in and producing nice charts for the governors. It is about the whole school. It is not about accountability to others.

How does the ICT Mark link with all this?

Many people were critical of the old mark, regarding it as a tick list.

Schools had to demonstrate that they had policies; now they have to show that those policies have classroom impact. The ICT Mark is a threshold within the framework. It is around level 3 and 4. When you reach that point, the framework says you might want to get someone to see what you are doing, to validate it. For some that will be attractive, for others it won't.

What if the strategy goes wrong?

We are in a continuous revolution. If we find it is not having an effect we can change. If it is not working in some areas, we will want to change the framework.

Is this just Becta? Or is it joined up?

We have buy-in from all the agencies. They have all signed it off. They're all on board.

And finally?

When you are creating something, one of the hardest things is working out the difference between scaffolding and real building. In, say 10 years, this will be seen as scaffolding. ICT will then be seen and used as a matter of course. We should be working to a point when we can background this when it becomes what schools do as matter of course.

Niel Mclean is Becta's executive director, educational practice, and has overall responsibility for institutional development and teaching and learning

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