Improving education in prison

education in prisonMy response to the Coates Review on the potential for edtech to solve some of the intractable problems with education in prisons

As a Head Teacher, Dame Sally Coates turned Burlington Danes from one of the worst schools in London to one of the best. Now, as Director of United Learning’s Southern Academies, she is becoming an influential figure in the education debate. She recently urged that “every child aged 4-14 should be taught the same topics from a prescriptive national curriculum at the same time”. I do not entirely agree with Dame Sally on this, as I made clear in my article Setting the Curriculum, but I think the basic argument that curriculum development should be centralised is right and comes as a welcome antidote to the poorly thought-through current fashion for curriculum autonomy. This has been given its most recent airing by the very poorly argued Assessment Without Levels report. I shall be reviewing this report and drilling down in some detail into the issue of the curriculum in my next posts, discussing what we mean by the term “curriculum”, what its purpose should be, what we mean when we say that it it should be coherent, and what its relationship should be to assessment and teaching.

In the meantime, Dame Sally has been asked by Michael Gove for advice on how to improve education in prison. 

As my partner is responsible for monitoring education on the Independent Monitoring Board of one of our local prisons, I am aware of many of the endemic problems of prison education. We responded together to the online questionnaire (now closed), which included a number of questions that specifically focused on the potential of education technology. As this is a complex subject, as laden with false promise as with genuine potential, I supplemented our answers to the questionnaire with a short paper on edtech, which I publish here.

Having also recently spoken at a conference on military e-learning, what I particularly want to emphasise is that there are certain common prerequisites that need to be put in place if edtech is to be effective in any of the many different sectors to which it has such a significant contribution to make. What we need is a cross-sector effort that pools the expertise and requirements of education in schools, in FE, in HE, in prisons, in the military, and in corporate training and private tuition. The generic requirements are the same and, at a generic level, so are the solutions.

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Assessing the evidence for edtech

Judge in wigThe widespread criticisms of the recent LSE and OECD reports are poorly founded and do nothing but undermine the argument for serious edtech

Those of us who complain that edtech gets too little attention in the national press should perhaps have been beware of what we wished for. Two recent studies to have hit the headlines both say that the general impact of technology on learning is negative.

Advocates of technology enhanced learning have tended to brush this research aside. Various online commentators have said that the reports were “flawed”, “confused” and “tosh”, and those who reported them were guilty of “lazy and irrelevant journalism”.

The two reports are:

Communication: Technology, Distraction & Student Performance

  • written by Louis Philippe Beland and Richard Murphy
  • published by the Centre for Economic Performance at the London School of Economics
  • in May 2015
  • which I will referred to as “the LSE report”.

Students, Computers and Learning—Making the Connection

  • published by the OECD under the direction of Andreas Schleicher
  • in September 2015
  • which I will refer to as “the OECD report”.

In this post I will:

  • review what the reports say and why they said it,
  • assess the arguments put forward for dismissing them,
  • and suggest some conclusions to take away.

At over 14,000 words, I cannot pretend that this is anything other than a long article—but the length is unavoidable given the nature of the topic. What is more, I believe that the reaction of the edtech community to these reports is sufficiently important to justify the effort of writing it. I thank you in advance for making the effort to read it and hope that by the time you finish, you will also think that it was worthwhile.

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Setting the curriculum

Archery targetsThe call from Dame Sally Coates for a single national curriculum raises important questions but does not give quite the right answers

Dame Sally Coates, Director of Academies South for United Learning, has claimed that all schools should follow the same curriculum, as created by a group of nationally-appointed experts.

Pedro De Bruyckere thinks that this is an April fool of an idea, that would kill the professionalism of teachers. On the whole, I am with Dame Sally.

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How edtech will revolutionize research

Researchers working at microscopesWhy the only realistic way of improving the quality of educational research (and of education itself) is by the intelligent application of education technology

I gave this talk at Research Ed 2015 on 5 September, the latest in a series of three national conferences organized by Tom Bennett.

Research Ed has grown into a vital event in the annual calendar for teachers interested in the theory of teaching. Nevertheless, my impression is that the centre of gravity of many of the talks at ResearchEd has veered away from an agenda that tries to promote sound, quantitative research, and is replaced with a softer account of both the role and methodology of research, as is suggested by the language of “action research” and “research-informed” teaching.

I believe that the problems with research are systemic and not just the result of incompetence. I argue in this piece that these systemic problems can (and can only) be solved by seeing teaching as a business which has a larger technical element than we commonly admit, and one that is less dependent on personal intuition (or what some call “tacit knowledge”). Such a realignment of our views on what teaching is, and how research into teaching should be conducted, will also underline a radical reevaluation of the role of technology in the classroom.

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After ETAG

After the ball by Ramon Casas Y CarboAfter the ETAG report failed to provide a coherent route map, the new government now has a once-in-a-decade opportunity to develop a radical new approach to ed-tech.

In the autumn of 2013, I welcomed the Coalition government’s revival of interest in ed-tech after four years of neglect (see “Land ho!” of December 2013). But the process of bringing the ship into port does not always run smoothly. If last January’s report from the Education Technology Action Group (ETAG) is of any value, it is only because it shows so clearly how muddled is the thinking of the ed-tech community in the UK.

I do not welcome the opportunity to produce another negative critique (indeed, I have hesitated for four months before doing so). I would much rather move on to make a positive contribution to a coherent discussion about effective ed-tech policy. But so long as a group such as ETAG, established with some fanfare by Ministers, produces such a poorly reasoned argument, there seems to be little option but to offer a rebuttal.

What I want to emphasise at the end of this piece, however, is that the failure of ETAG provides an important opportunity to put aside the muddled vision of technology in education that has dominated our discourse for the last 20 years. Following last week’s election, we have in 2015 the best opportunity since 1997 to make a fresh start and introduce a truly effective model of education technology into our schools.

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Next generation SCORM

Ballet dancerAn outline and rationale for my proposal for “next generation SCORM”. I call it STARLET: Shareable Tools Activities and Resources for Learning Education and Training

This is the second in a series of papers prepared for an Education Priorities Working Group being run by W3C. While the first paper, Proposed W3C Priorities for Education, took a high level overview, this paper drills down into a proposal for a specific work item. At the technical level, which is not education-specific, I call this XDMDL, eXtensible Data Model Declaration Language. At the education level, I propose that the XDMDL should be used to underpin a new digitial ecosystem for learning. It is this education-specific ecosystem for which I propose the name STARLET: Shareable Tools Activities and Resources for Learning Education and Training. As before, if you are interested in what you read and want to get involved in the W3C discussions, email me at

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