To ensure that self-isolating students don’t fall behind their peers in the classroom, the Department for Education (DfE) recently issued a temporary continuity direction requiring all schools to provide “immediate access to remote education.” Schools might have had months to prepare (we all knew a second wave was coming), but the DfE offered little practical, central guidance on how to deliver it, leaving each school to work out their approach.
The government has squandered the only advantage schools had – time – and has once again left teachers to pick up the pieces. Further, the threat of sanctions is wholly unnecessary – only once the DfE has evidence that schools and teachers are not giving learners what they deserve should they crack the whip, not before.
To expand remote learning provision beyond the busy Zoom calls that teachers became acquainted with earlier this year, the government is also pushing for developments in edtech. The DfE’s efforts take the form of further investment in the Edtech Demonstrator Programme to the tune of an additional £1.5 million. This means that the programme, which can currently provide bespoke one-to-one support to 3,400 schools and colleges, will be expanded to support a further 1,000. New resources will also be made available for staff – including a good practice guide and school-led webinars.
Investment is welcome, but the programme is too little, too late. The DfE’s gesture of support doesn’t scratch the surface of the need and feels like a box-tick exercise rather than a genuine attempt to help.
A closer look at the Edtech Demonstrator Programme
The Edtech Demonstrator Programme is all about distributing the knowledge of how to use technology in an education setting among schools effectively. Institutions which have successfully implemented technology act as ‘demonstrators’, sharing their expertise with other institutions in exchange for additional funding.
In theory, this allows schools to bring in expert peer guidance from other schools to help them upgrade areas they feel may benefit from an infusion of technology, generally encompassing task management, administration, SEND support or setting up necessary cloud infrastructure. Demonstrators offer support remotely in the form of webinars, tutorials and one-to-one support.
However, the reality of the programme leaves much to be desired. First off, schools that have succeeded in implementing technology are just as pressed for time and resources as any other school, and will be hard-pressed to offer the type of support the Edtech Demonstrator Programme envisions.
The concept of taking edtech champion schools and enabling them to support other schools is not new, and in the past, it has come at a cost to the demonstrator school or teacher. More worryingly, the underlying concept works on the basis that all schools are fundamentally alike, which is never going to be the case. Cohorts and contexts are individual, as is the local impact of coronavirus.
There is a better way
We have to be pragmatic; the DfE has to work out how to provide the necessary guidance and support to schools, and they are limited in terms of what they can afford to do. This is especially true now that we have forfeited the advantage of time.
In my opinion, the DfE has made two critical mistakes: first, it has failed to offer top-down guidance and has left every school to face uncertainty alone. The department must lay out optional guidelines which present the tools and techniques schools can use to maintain teaching as circumstances change – and ideally, the DfE would have released the guidelines before the start of term.
The second critical mistake is that the DfE ignored the commercial sector; groups of experts who are champing at the bit to help and have the means to do so. The government should be grabbing leading schools, bringing edtech into the forum and working with them to rethink and reinvent the way they support teachers. These companies could share data to ensure kids are safe, enable access to outstanding education for all, and blur the boundaries between schools. Then they could identify where the investment needs to go and ensure that all children are monitored and protected while managing learning effectively.
It’s not too late to sort this out. It will take an allocation of resources; an expectation that parents may need to step up; a working model of how to implement hybrid learning; and an assessment of the effectiveness of different models in different contexts. It will require creative thinking and bring to bear a partnership between public and private to develop the tools to provide every student with a top-notch education, regardless of the circumstances. In short, the government must abandon approaches such as the Edtech Demonstrator Programme that have fallen short in the past and re-evaluate its approach.
The decisions that we all make today will affect a generation of learners tomorrow, and this is not an area where we can afford to pinch pennies. We must provide teachers with clear guidance, flexibility and plentiful resources as an investment in the future – the cost of failure here is too great to consider.
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