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Where the Becta closure fits in the ConDem education policies

May 25th, 2010 by Graham Attwell

Yesterday saw the expected announcement by the UK DemCon Coalition government of the closure of Becta, the British Educational Communication and Technology Agency, as part of a massive cut back in public services.

In many ways this was an easy hit for the government. Becta has always had a mixed reputation in the educational technology community; although much of its work was respected, particularly the research, other policies especially around procurement and its alleged bias against open source were less popular.

However, there is no doubt that the closure signals the end of an era in technology development and implementation in UK education. Educational technologists in many European countries have long looked at the UK in envy. Reliant on either centralised government led initiatives, or local support and projects, there has been far less opportunities for developing and implementing effective programmes and strategies for technology in learning. Germany today continues to languish far behind many other counties in the use of technology in schools. Arguably one of the reasons for this is the lack of ability of the regional Lander governments who are responsible for education to develop coherent programmes to support educational technology development. There are of course exceptions, often driven by innovative regional governments, including the Extramadura programme around open source software. But nevertheless, and despite the dubious obsession of the previous UK Labour government with output driven targets, the last ten years has seen sustained support for developing educational technology in schools which has enabled a movement beyond isolated islands of effective practice to the more mainstream adoption of education technology for learning. Becta has played an important part in this.

As Becta themselves have pointed out, the closure may well not save money with the ending of the technology procurement support for schools.

The closure  probably reflects wider ConDem policies. One is the conservative myth that somehow if we return to old fashioned rote learning and traditional pedagogies allied to stronger school discipline, rigid school uniform policies etc. then somehow school standards will improve. Naturally technology plays no part in a chalk and talk view of learning. And the end result of such policies will be the further alienation of many students from the schooling system, an increase in the already growing class nature of the educational system and a widening of the reality gap between the way young learn and the practice of schools.

The second is a movement towards privatising education. According to the Guardian newspaper, the government will announce tomorrow their intention to allow “500 secondary schools and 1,700 primary schools have the freedom of city academy status by the summer.” The Guardian explains “Academies have greater freedom to set their curriculum, pay rates and admissions policies.” Such a move heralds selective admission policies which are set to benefit students from richer families and the breaking up of collective pay bargaining for teachers. But central to the policy of City Academies, which were introduced by the previous Labour Government, was the desire to introduce private funding for schools. Academies  receive state funds but are privately sponsored and run independently of local authorities. As Fiona Miller explains they are “independently owned, run by sponsors and loosely governed by “funding agreements” – confidential commercial contracts that don’t necessarily give pupils and parents the same protection under the law in areas like admissions, special needs and exclusions.Their governing bodies are controlled by the sponsors, who are often based miles away from where the school is situated. In the Conservative free schools model, private sector companies based in other parts of the world are being groomed to take over English schools.”

Such a policy is hidden behind an rhetoric of protecting direct services. In other words money is taken from an agency such as Becta with a remit to support learning for all students and given to private organisations to spend as they wish, all under the guise of greater accountability and democracy.

The problem with Becta was not that its policy on this or that was right or wrong, or even its perceived lack of support for open source. The issue was that as a government controlled agency, or quango, it often seemed to remote from the practice and everyday experience of teachers and learners. Whilst schools in the UK have traditionally been run by elected local governments, the previous Labour government set about a policy of centralisation, introducing a relatively rigid national curriculum, setting endless performance targets and national testing and giving increased powers to central agencies. The ConDem government is set to build on that beginning by the progressive and creeping privatisation of education. Becta is but one victim of that process. Of course there will be continued development of educational technology. But expect to see less emphasis on research. Expect to see less concern over the learner experience. Expect to see less concern over support for lower achieving students.  Expect to see contracts placed with the friends of Academy directors in this brave new free world. And expect to see a widening of the class division in the provision of education.

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