Leader magazineASCL - Association of School and College Leaders

Powering down

Hand turning off light switch

Becta had its flaws but in the wake of its demise a question mark hangs over the future of national ICT strategy, says Merlin John.

As an early victim of cuts by the new government, Becta, (the British Educational Communications and Technology Agency) will be wound up later this year.

School leaders do have some cause for concern about the agency's closure but the simple truth is that no one mourns a quango. The loss of the jobs of those who were effective, and the services that proved their value, will be regretted - particularly if they do not re-emerge elsewhere - but not the organisation.

Becta was a rebranding of its successor, the National Council for Educational Technology. One structural curse it carried was that it was a technology agency in a role to change learning and teaching - a tail wagging a dog.

Another flaw was that it was never clear about who it served. Becta did a good job of facing government and making a case for its existence and funding, but it was never confident about facing the customers who stood to gain most from its activities - learners, teachers, school leaders and parents.

The major challenge it set itself in 2005, and never openly discussed again, was to raise the percentage of 'e-confident schools' from around 10-15 per cent to 80 per cent within three years.

This was an admirable aim, but there was little evidence of success. Despite that, Becta's remit was extended to address parents, and even though this included the laudable Home Access scheme, there were no metrics for effectiveness and success which Becta could use to defend itself against threats to its existence.

Probably the best thing that the agency ever did for school leaders was SLICT (Strategic Leadership of ICT), the programme developed in 2004 with the then National College for School Leadership which ran for four years.

At a time of concern about the ability of schools to change their culture and apply new technologies to learning and administration, SLICT did at least two important things for headteachers: it took them away from everyday pressures of school to expose them to important new ideas; and it brought them together to learn and share expertise.

The huge and continuing disparity in ICT confidence between schools means that something like SLICT is still needed. In light of Becta's demise, who would host such an initiative now is unclear.

While Becta might be largely unlamented, some key questions remain, the most important of which is: does the new government appreciate the importance of ICT to support, enrich and extend the kinds of learning that schools wish to cultivate, to engage young people, and to drive efficiencies and savings?

Reassurance has to come from a ministerial team in which, significantly, no single member appears to have any responsibility for ICT. It's also a team preparing to slash one of the most potent providers of ICT for schools, the Building Schools for the Future programme. School leaders will also wonder:

  • Where can they get impartial advice on ICT purchasing? This will not come from suppliers but could come from other organisations, like Naace (www.naace.co.uk) and the SSAT (www.ssatrust.org.uk).

  • Where can they find research on adoption of emerging technologies? This was an important Becta role but there were issues with its performance - and it could be better provided by a lead university.

  • Who will keep up the pressure on suppliers to make sure their products are compatible with schools' systems and other products they use? Although Becta pressed hard on 'interoperability', the real power when it comes to contracts with IT providers rests with the 'learning grid' keepers, the regional broadband consortia (RBCs). See www.ja.net/communities/schools/

  • Where can they keep abreast of key issues in e-safety? While Becta did valuable work in this area, the RBCs hold considerable expertise, along with other sources including CEOP (www.ceop.gov.uk, www.thinkuknow.co.uk) and the charity Childnet International www.childnet-int.org

  • What will happen to useful Becta features like the self review framework (SRF), the procurement frameworks that delivered aggregation and value for money or the innovative CLCs (city learning centres) it funded? The SRF could go back to where it originated from, to Naace, while the frameworks are going back to the Department for Education and local authorities might possibly take up CLCs.

School leaders' need for answers to these questions varies. Confident and successful schools, those most likely to benefit from new freedoms and resources, have less need of support than those struggling to progress.

It's too early for prophecies of doom and gloom because change, however radical, brings new opportunities. But one reassuring signal would be government recognition of the tremendous value of ICT for schools by returning national strategic leadership of ICT to the DfE where it belongs.

Even better, bring in the new generation of school leaders, like Learning and Teaching Scotland's Ollie Bray (www.olliebray.com), who are as adept with ICT as with pedagogy to support the forthcoming challenges. Teachers learn best from other teachers - leaders too.

Merlin John is a freelance journalist and editor of an ICT-focused website, www.agent4change.net

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