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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Rescue ETAG—say no to FELTAG

FELTAG and ETAGThe DfE should reject the FELTAG recommendations in order to ensure that all the same mistakes are not repeated by ETAG

At the same time as the Further Education Learning Technology Action Group (FELTAG) got ready to submit its recommendations to government for action to support ed-tech in Further Education, a new group was set up to propose similar recommendations that would cover all education sectors. But the Education Technology Action Group (ETAG) has inherited all of the same flawed assumptions that were made by FELTAG and by BECTA before them. If Matt Hancock wants to be the man who ends the long history of failed government initiatives and the man who helps introduce genuine, transformative education technology to the UK, he needs to insist that the government is given a much clearer and more convincing rationale for action than the FELTAG report has offered.

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What ETAG should say

The first meeting of ETAG, attended by Michael Gove and Mat HancockThe Education Technology Action Group, set up by the DfE and BIS and announced by Matt Hancock at BETT, has made a shaky start. This is what I think they should end up saying to Ministers.

In my post “Land ho!” of 16 December, I welcomed the noises being made at that time by Matt Hancock, Minister for Skills & Enterprise at BIS, about the government’s new, more proactive approach to education technology. This led to the announcement at BETT on 23 January of a new advisory group, the Education Technology Action Group, to be chaired by Stephen Heppell. The most that could be said so far is that ETAG has had a slow start.We didn’t hear anything of substance until 23 April, when it published a series of questions that are to form the basis of a consultation, which is to run until 23 June. In my view, the questions are not particularly helpful. Nor have they attracted any significant response in the first couple of weeks, there having been only a couple of dozen substantive tweets using the #etag hashtag. But I am looking forward to engaging in the consultation and, by way of encouraging the debate, publish below my own views on what ETAG should say to Ministers.

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Why teachers don’t know best

The blind leading the blind by  Pieter Bruegel the Elder, 1568It is not surprising that teachers get impatient when others tell them how to do their job: “we are the experts”, they complain, “not you”. What should surprise the rest of us is how wrong they are: most teachers know little about teaching as a technical discipline.

This post responds to a comment by someone nicknamed subminiature, who argued on the Radio Times website that teachers knew what they were doing and should just be left to get on with the job. In this lengthy response, I argue the opposite: through no fault of their own, teachers do not have the skill-set that is required to improve the chronic under-performance of our education service. This will only be achieved by the implementation of education technology, backed by sound pedagogy. It is not surprising that teachers are not technology-experts: what is surprising is that they are not experts in pedagogy either. Expecting teachers to lead the sort of transformative development that is required in education is about as sensible as expecting a group of horse-drawn carriage drivers to design the first steam engine. Yet that is precisely the assumption on which government policy has been based over the last 15 years. A policy based on teachers sharing ed-tech best practice is analogous to Breugel’s allegory of the blind leading the blind.

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Computing in the National Curriculum

Michael Gove leaving a platform on the National CurriculumMy response to the Department for Education’s consultation on the draft National Curriculum

Following my previous posts on the review of the National Curriculum (Digital literacy and the new ICT curriculum and Good lord! Where’s the digital literacy?), I submitted the following response to the DfE’s consultation on the National Curriculum, with particular reference to Computing.

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Good lord! Where’s the digital literacy?

Tintin, Captain Haddock, Professor Tarragon and Snowy find that the mummy has disappeared, from Tintin and the Seven crystal balls by HergéThe most recent draft of the Computing Curriculum for England and Wales has majored on Computer Science at the expense of Digital Literacy. Before we can discover where the latter has gone, we will need to agree on what it is we are looking for.

In November I posted an article on Digital literacy and the new ICT curriculum, which argued that:

  • the review of the ICT curriculum would allow us to disentangle the teaching of technology (“Computing”) from the use of technology to improve learning (“education technology”);
  • this opportunity was not yet being realised because teachers’ representatives were still led by adherents of the old conception of “ICT”, which deliberately conflated these two separate objectives.

The supporters of the old consensus have been arguing that there is no need to change the old ICT curriculum at all because all was well with the status quo. In response to some misleading information that suggested that this view had the support of OFSTED, on 5th February I wrote an opinion piece in Computing Magazine, clarifying OFSTED’s position and summarizing what I see as the problem with the debate over Digital Literacy.

This article gives some more background to the position described in Computing. It will:

  • analyse the current draft of the DfE’s Programme of Study (PoS) for Computing;
  • review the theories that lie behind the definition of “digital literacy” put forwards by the advocates of ICT;
  • restate the case for the adoption of the definition of “digital literacy” put forwards by the Royal Society;
  • propose a set of amendments to the current draft of the ICT programme of study, bringing back what I suggest is the right sort of digital literacy.

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Education’s coming revolution

The requirement for education technology rests, not on spurious arguments about “21st century skills”, but on a long-standing need to find a way of teaching traditional skills systematically and at scale. To succeed, education has to go through its own industrial revolution, which will introduce systematic processes, backed by effective quality controls and robust quantitative evidence of effectiveness.

At a recent event in London reported by Merlin John[1], Tim Oates of Cambridge Assessment suggested that the British textbooks produced in the 1970s by the School Mathematics Project (SMP) and the Nuffield Science series still represented the best resources around in their respective fields. This is startling claim, coming as it does after 40 years in which we have seen a revolution in information technology and the expense of billions of pounds on technology in schools.

Two of the leading figures in the textbook publishing movement of the 1970s were both Headmasters at my old school, Sevenoaks, a commuter town 25 miles south of London. At the time that I was at the school in the late 1970s, the Headmaster was Alan Tammadge, a principal author of the SMP series for Maths. The previous Headmaster had been Kim (L C) Taylor, who had resigned from Sevenoaks in 1970 to become Director of the Nuffield Resources for Learning project.

Resources for Learning[2] was also the name of a book, written in the following year, in which Taylor provided a justification for the Nuffield programme. He questioned whether the comprehensive education that was being introduced in the UK at the time was realistic. His concern was not about the phasing out of selection: the problem that caught Taylor’s eye was the fact that the new system of secondary education was to be universal. Traditional education had always been provided to a small elite based on a model of the teacher-as-craftsman. So long as we clung to that model, Taylor argued that there would not be enough sufficiently well qualified teachers to go around.

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