Monday, May 24, 2010

Becta, Jamie Oliver, and the Romans

Highland Theatre by miss mass. Used under a Creative Commons License.
Something I should say up front: I've done a little consultancy for Becta in the area of learning platforms, but the funds involved went to my employer (Bucks County Council) for my time & travel, and not to me.
[This post was started before the announcement of Becta's closure and completed on the day of it and so the first section has been edited to reflect this.]
With the nascent coalition government already unable to control leaks of Tuesday's forthcoming Queen's Speech to the newspapers, today is the day tomorrow is heralded by many as the day on which it will be has been announced that the government's education technology agency - Becta (formerly the British Educational Communications and Technology Agency) - will either be closed  or at least severely cut back. Becta - a non-departmental public body classified as a quango - operates in many different roles  and its roles have changed over the years. It was very much a child of its time - formed in 1998 to oversee the increased levels of investment in education technology which the incoming Labour government of 1997 brought with it. It's fair to say that the UK had never seen such a significant investment in information & communication technology specifically aimed towards education and hence Becta's role could be likened to inventing, then studying, nurturing and then trying to domesticate a new breed of animal - namely ICT harnessed to support education.
Becta has a number of aspects which impact on schools - it was charged with overseeing the Primary Schools  Whiteboards Expansion project in the early 2000s, of the Laptops for Teachers scheme of the and a number of procurement frameworks, in particular the ones concerning Learning Platforms and Infrastructure Services.
It's easy to place oneself at either end of the spectrum of views of Becta - either at the "it never did anything for me, so good riddance, let's put the money straight into schools" or the "it should carry on as it ever was". Whatever the truth is (and no-one will ever know), there are some odd attitudes around. Some people seem to be overjoyed at the prospect - though someone would only toast it with a chilled bottle of wine if they were particularly bitter at feeling marginalised in the past, or didn't quite appreciate that there might be perspectives other than their own. I've seen a lot of messages on Twitter saying things like Becta never managed to introduce technology effectively into schools or I never got anything from it or an unthinking It didn't work - and a lot of these messages come from those whose heads are screwed on normally in terms of educational ICT. There are a few things that these points of view miss:

Becta was not really given the power to make schools do anything.

I recall a conversation with someone involved in the Learning Platforms framework who was referring to the spring 2008 "personalised learning space" target. As this person said "it was a target with no teeth" - meaning that  schools wouldn't face sanctions it they didn't meet it. The drivers which would make it a genuine target - if Ofsted looked at the school's provision of such a space as part of their inspection, or if a school's SEF had a section concerning online support for learning - just didn't exist, and with Oftsed showing such a lack of understanding of Learning Platforms / Virtual Learning Environments it must have felt like trying to explain to a medieval knight how important passenger airbags are. The instruction to make change in schools happen using ICT without any compulsion for schools to engage with this instruction meant that in many ways, Becta were on a hiding to nothing...

You can lead a horse to water...

Every now and then there's a complaint that food facism is taking children's freedom to eat junk food away. Then Jamie Oliver makes the point that maybe it's not such a good idea to feed children Turkey Twizzlers and there's general acceptance that the dietary health of schoolchildren might actually be important after all. Try and implement such a programme, however, and you create a black market of crisps, sweets and sugary drinks run by the children themselves - plus all the usual stories about mothers pushing burgers through the school gates to fat-deprived children. The point is obvious - all of the good intentions, funding, examples of what a difference a particular programme can make - can easily run aground on the rocks of an attitude which says Nope, we don't want to do this or I don't think it's important. Was it Becta's responsbility to force feed the healthy eating of well thought through ICT down the mouths of unwilling schools? Not unless it wanted to be accused of the opposite - of imposing technology on schools no matter what. Take its foot off the pedal and it would be subject to the half-hearted complaints surfacing at the moment - something that gets individuals, schools or Local Authorities off the hook as Becta is a convenient scapegoat when "it doesn't succeed in putting ICT in schools".

My view & experience don't represent everyone else's - and neither do yours.

Part of a mature outlook on many things is to recognise that one's own portfolio of circumstances, attitudes, experiences and environment isn't the only one - meaning those who say Becta failed have taken their own experience, or someone they know, or something they've read and extrapolated it to apply to everyone everywhere for all time. It's true that not everything Becta carried out worked as intended but, as Ken Robinson points out, you can't be creative if you're not prepared to be wrong. Many of those who want to encourage creativity in learners and teachers (often through the use of ICT) don't have time for the possibility of an organisation which they don't control being creative and (quite possibly) getting things wrong. If my experience of Becta (whether positive or negative) leads me to draw a conclusion about its overall worth, then the least I can do is consider those who've had the opposite experience and work out where the truth lies.

Becta, Moodle & the market

Before going on I think I should address some of the misinformation going on around Becta and Moodle (or Open Source in general) - particularly on Twitter today. One of the accusations being levelled is that somehow because Becta didn't "get" Moodle (or Open Source in general) it deserves to die. Well, hang on. Moodle couldn't be offered as a platform in the Learning Platforms Framework because the Framework was about services, not software, despite the fact that some servicing companies weren't up to scratch. If anyone knows anything about the way schools, Local Authorities and the wider NEN works they should know that, so saying "Becta blocked Moodle" is uninformed I wrote years ago about how if someone really wanted Moodle under the LP Framework they could get it that way. Did anyone do it? Not that I've heard of. Secondly, here in Buckinghamshire (and in West Sussex, and in Cumbria and Lancashire, and in... etc) we use Moodle to meet the relevant parts of our targets - completely sanctioned and approved of by Becta - they visited us enough times to validate that what we were doing was good enough and were really positive. Our work was featured on their Learning Platforms in Action DVD and in a number of case studies and... and... and... well, after a while I get bored of hearing people moan that they weren't allowed to do things by Becta like "use Moodle" - if that was the case, how do they explain what we did? Answers in a comment please...
(an edit as I originally forgot to include this when I was rushing out to a school) Also, Becta supported & supports the Open Source Schools project in the UK as it starts to work out how to best support and advocate OSS in schools. 

Hang on. What about...?

In all of this, there are some important unanswered questions:
  1. Bearing in mind that most government web sites currently have the disclaimer with words to the effect of all statutory guidance and legislation linked to from this site continues to reflect the current legal position unless indise, but may not reflect Government policy. where does this leave things like online reporting, home access (which was a one-off grant). Do the targets for parental reporting (etc) still apply, or are schools and LAs now not required to meet them? Is the ditching of Contact Point indicative of a large-scale rolling back of projects, meaning that everything will be swept away in a baby/bathwater episode, or will initiatives be evaluated on a case-by-case basis.
  2. What will happen to the resources on the Becta web site - such as the research papers, resources, guidance, etc. Closure is slated for November, but there's a wealth of resources there which should not go to waste.
  3. What does this say about the Coalition's view on the appropriate use of technology in education? The Conservative party, whose pre-election education information contained no mention of technology in any form, and who had an image of a child writing lines of I will respect my teacher in chalk on a blackboard only a year before the general election appear to have steamrollered the Liberal Democrats' thoughts on education, so it remains to be seen if any green shots appear from beneath the paving slabs. Listening to George Osborne & David Laws announce the extent of  thecuts/efficiencies/savings this morning I was struck by the number of times they thanked the people who'd been working all weekend on them, but didn't hear anything about those who will lose their jobs & professions as a result of them. Ah well. Slightly more disconcerting was to hear David Laws say that they'd fought hard to protect front line services for schools - was this an admission that the Coalition doesn't see effective use of ICT as something important to 21st Century learners? We shall see.

So, what next?

The phrase curate's egg is almost certainly tripping from some commentators' tongues, but the nub of that phrase is that what is good in some parts and bad in others is "completely spoiled". I don't think that this is the case with Becta. What was needed was a leaner, meaner, keener Becta, which could have addressed the wasteful spending in the realm of ICT. I often wonder how much of what is spent at the BETT show is used effectively - at this point some people would start to blame Becta for a waste of government funds, but ultimately the money spent at something like BETT goes to schools and (for the moment) Local Authorities. At this point, I was going to pontificate on what this leaner, keener, meaner version of Becta would look like, but on reflection (since this blog is, primarily, a means of reflecting on what I claim to be my "profession"), I'll leave that to another post after some thought.
In the meantime, reflect on this. Over the past thirteen years Local Authorities and their schools have been, for the most part, like spoiled children in terms of educational technology. I have colleagues in private schools who are green with envy at the funding, support and guidance that LAs and schools have had - and for the most part, those colleagues have benefited from the latter two elements while pining for the former. Like spoiled children, we get bored with being endlessly accomodated to, whether it's more money for this, or this, or that, or... and the moaning begins. It's really interesting to look across at the United States and see parts of President Obama's Stimulus Package, with its $650 million for educational technology, as a direct descendant of the model overseen by Becta in the UK. I'm also aware of the resources made for UK schools used across the globe to measure impact, look at "E-Maturity" and other resources which would never have existed if a group of school leaders had sat down in 1998 and listed what they'd like. However, that's just my view of course. I've had plenty words to say about how Becta could have done things better (and when they've done things well) but that's probably enough for now. I'll edit this post further as things come to mind, or if anything isn't clear. In the meantime, if you want to hear the popular view on Becta, just search Twitter, you might find plenty of bile and celebration overwhelming the worried voices. However, you could always summarise what's being said by listening to a few guys from England put it in just about the most succinct way:


  1. "Moodle couldn't be offered as a platform in the Learning Platforms Framework because the Framework was about services"

    Eh? I think you are trying to have it both ways. If you mean, Moodle could have been offered, contingently, as part of a service, but was not, that raises lots of interesting questions about why it was not, particularly given the base of installed Moodle solutions. If you mean that the procurement was not about VLE/CMS products at all, which was in a sense true, then why did the bids include products, because I understand products were evaluated in the service evaluations. Either way we do not have an answer as to why there was no Moodle based service offered within the framework. Sure, no Moodle based service was tendered, but why not? Did the framework procurement? discriminate against Moodle based services or could no one be arsed to offer them?

  2. Extremadura, the poorest of Spain's regions, provided one PC per 2 pupils in every single classroom, using Free Software, with a fraction of the UK IT budget.

    A school in Skegness did something similar here, saving so much money they got a new building & an extra teacher, yet other schools continued to be advised (by BECTA) against using GNU/Linux.

  3. Not both ways at all. Read the framework and its title: Learning Platform Services Framework. Many of the suppliers were indeed based around a particular tool (UniServity, Talmos, etc. - and hence were often named the same as the tool) but had to include services around it - including an ePortfolio, support services, etc.
    There was at least one Moodle-based service that applied to be on the framework - by our supplier Atomwide. It made it through to the last 15 or so but because Atomwide didn't pass certain tests to do with the nature of the company (in terms of its size, I believe. Now, that's controversial in itself (especially bearing in mind the demise of eTech, but personally speaking I would say that's more to do with obfuscation on the part of eTech than anything sinister on Becta's behalf), but the important thing is that Atomwide couldn't simply offer a server running Moodle and say "can we be considered please?". They had to offer the full range of services. Now, whether they should have got through is another question - but the idea that there's somehow a "Remember - no Moodle allowed" sign hanging in a Becta office somewhere. What I meant by the "if anyone really wanted Moodle" comment was that it was quite possible to through RM via the Learning Platform Services Framework and yet specify that you wanted to use Moodle - in which case, RM would subcontract to Atomwide to supply Moodle as part of their framework (see the blog post referred to above). However, you were buying the overall service but then in the specifics specifying how you want it delivered. In a similar way Local Authorities going into BSF can/could (in theory) specify that the managed service provider had to use their existing Learning Platform or VLE, be it Moodle or something else.

  4. very noble of you to stick up for becta. well done.
    Still think you are wrong though, it didn't work. And it shouldn't be compared to the Romans either, they actually Did Do Things.
    But folk did in the old days. BQ.
    Before Quangos.

  5. Some very thought provoking comments here - thanks Ian. There are two elements to what Becta has been doing thatt are prevalent in recent discussions; one is procurement frameworks and the other advice, guidance and support etc. The former is more quantifiable than the latter in terms of impact, which is why naturally Becta chiefs point to the fact that "procurement arrangements save the schools and colleges many times more than Becta costs to run". Sadly, this is also the weaker part of the argument. As someone who has provided to the Public Sector over many years and for many services/products, I can affirm that there are several different ways someone can procure through official frameworks. The seeming waste in setting up of overlapping if not identical frameworks by different bodies does no doubt deserve cutback, and in Becta's case surely OGC can take up the framework procurement aspect and continue to produce 'savings' (sorry Steven Crowne et al). However, in respect of other Becta services, it is my humble opinion (& personal view please note) that this is the area Becta will potentially be missed. Unfortunately it is the area in which it is harder to quantify what value they have already delivered. Can we ascribe a 'value' to all those resources etc Ian mentions above? If it were that easy to do, I suspect we might be looking at a slightly different argument, and that is where a 'meaner leaner' Becta might have survived. Let's truly hope that the baby does not disappear with the bathwater.

  6. @Cyberdoyle I might be partially sticking up for Becta now, but I certainly haven't in the past. "it didn't work" is the sort of broad generalisation that comes from taking one's own experience and applying it to everyone. What about those for whom it did work? Would you say they're misguided, or lying, or in the pocket of someone else? Or is there a chance that they might be right?

  7. Great piece Ian and now we must address the void? Any one interested in an MBO? Lots of intellectual property going for a song?

    Bob Harrison

  8. Nevertheless Ian you can't deny that if a Moodle solution had been on the final 8 LPs being touted by Becta at BETT in 2007, a lot more schools would have felt secure in purchasing support to use a Moodle VLE. As it is, the idea that Moodle was 'not allowed' (whether or not it was actually true pedantically speaking - in fact it was true because many local authorities sanctioned against schools who did not subscribe to their chosen solution).

    Many would have chosen Moodle.

    Becta prevented this from happening, and they didn't have to as there were plenty of good services to support it.

    After all - why would it need to be a 'big' service. It could be a single local consultant who could help a school to implement Moodle. Moodle is big, it is Becta that was small.

    Liz Hitchcock