Q&A: Becta's Niel McLean defends free PCs for kids

students and teacher

The educational technology sector is worth hundreds of millions to the UK - and it's had a recent boost by the start up of a new programme that will see computers and broadband given to students of low-income families.

We spoke with Niel McLean, an executive director at government education body Becta, on the sidelines of tech show BETT this week for his thoughts on the Home Access Programme, gadgets for kids, and open source in schools.

The big news this week is the Home Access Programme, which will see the Government fund free computers and laptops for students from low-income families. While it's being talked about a lot this week, it was announced years ago and was trialled this year so it feels like it's been going on a long time.

You're absolutely right, it's had a history. It's actually good, because often when government does things it doesn't have the time to trial pilot and all those sorts of things, so it's incredibly reassuring that we did spend the time piloting in Suffolk and Oldham and things like that before going national. We've gone national now and we've sent out about 20,000 applications in two days. So it's really started.

For us it's part of a bigger picture. Basically, one side there's schools, on the other there's children and families. And there's things that connect them. And what we're trying to do is say if we've got technology in the home, and we've got the right technology the learning platform in the schools. [This] means that this school can extend it's offer beyond the school day, and you get the right connection between them, because the learning platform allows communication, you get exciting things happening in schools.

It's part of a big push about how schools use the technology to engage parents, particularly in their kid's learning [and] how they extend the offer beyond the school day. We've seen a bit of that [during] the [recent] snow, where schools have been able to carry on operating even when they're closed, because they've got a learning platform, their learning resources are on there and parents can log in and kids can log in.

It's part of a bigger picture. It isn't just putting computers into homes. So when you say the "next step," for us very much the next stage is making sure we get the maximum benefit out of what's actually quite a big investment.

It's about supporting a family to learn with us.

What about training for parents? It's one thing to get computers into homes, but if the reason parents haven't bought computers is because they're scared or intimidated by them, what support will there be for them?

You're absolutely right. It's not just financial barriers that prevent people from getting on with technology.

On the "techie-techie" side, that's a supplier responsibility. That's part of the deal when you purchase this from the approved suppliers, the suppliers pick up all the "techie-techie" bit.

We're partnering with people like the UK Online Centres, My Guide, Online Basics, which is a new online course to support basic ICT skills. We've agreed with the suppliers that [on] all the machines that people buy with their grant card, the first thing you hit [on the internet] is a home page, which directs you straight away to these areas of support.

So you can find out where your local UK Online Centre is and you can start looking at online materials or go to the UK Online Centre and get the training and the support you need.

We've [also] included a specific set of training materials around internet safety as part of the standard offer. So not only are machines all set up so they're safe out of the box with the parental controls and all those things, but there's a set of materials that a children's charity produced that we funded that talk you through the issues of internet safety.

That's the other concern that parents have got. Yes it's cost, but it's also "Am I skilled enough?" and "Am I safe?" So we're trying to hit all three of those in the programme.

There's been some criticism especially lately from TalkTalk that it seems kind of strange to be investing all this money and then turning around and taxing people with broadband lines in order to fund broadband going everywhere. TalkTalk described it as "muddled thinking." Does that seem like "muddled thinking" to you?

Not really. What they're doing is they're confusing two things, and I can see why they're doing it, because it's easy to confuse it.

There's one issue, which is about the basic infrastructure - the roads - and that's part of Digital Britain, and there are things that you have to do that this programme won't solve.

For instance, if you're in a blackspot and you can't get connectivity, home access won't help you. All it does is give you a grant to purchase something. It might present a more compelling case for some providers to move into the spaces for the "not-spots". But one of the bits is dealing with the roads, and one of the bits is dealing with the low income families, ensuring they've actually got cars to drive on those roads.

So they're not contradictory. They're quite different sorts of things. You have to make sure you've got roads, but at the same time you don't want to leave a particular group of people not able to use them.

I wouldn't have made the connection in they way they've made the connection. Because if you've got broadband and you build the system, you still have a bunch of people who still haven't got a computer to access it.

So this is about getting technology into homes for students, but a lot of teachers complain that they don't have enough technology in classrooms. What's being done to address that?

There is still the Harnessing Technology grant within the school. Budgets are always tight, but there is still money going into schools for technology.

I think the number of schools saying they need more money for technology is dropping. We've got pretty good ratios in many schools now.

Some schools might be facing refresh issues, and that kind of thing, but in general, we've got I can't remember what the actual figure is one of the best computer-to-pupil ratios in the world.

I think it's always a bit of a tension between the school and the home. If you'd have asked me when I was a teacher not necessarily about the IT stuff, but in general if I could fix everything that needed to be fixed about a kid's life in the classroom, I would have said no. I wanted books in the homes of kids, wanted parents reading to their kids, to actually help me in the classroom - more than more books in the classroom would have done, to be honest.

That's the kind of big thing that the government is sort of recognising: how well kids do at school is affected profoundly by their home circumstances. In a strange way, this is helping teachers.

So you when you were a teacher, you would have liked to have had parents sitting down with their kids and reading to them? So not much has changed. But does having a computer really change whether parents are getting involved or not?

Interestingly, yeah.

One of the interesting things around the pilot, because it was branded so heavily around education, [is that] it's stimulated different behaviours in the homes of people who have got grants than was the norm.

I'll give you one concrete fact about this, because we did an evaluation of the pilot. We compared low income families who'd already got computers - because there are some who've got them - with people from low income families who hadn't got them and got something through the scheme.

The people who got something through the scheme were spending, on average, an hour or more doing homework online or on the computer than the people who got technology through another route. Because they hadn't made the connection they bought it as an entertainment device, or a social networking device or whatever.

... [Now] we're giving advice to parents, and about the safeguarding of children, asking parents to talk to children, not to check up on them, but to create a dialogue, we saw those sorts of things happening in the pilot. So I'm pretty optimistic about that.

[Historically] when they come home it's the classic thing. The parent says "what did you do at school today?" and the kid just grunts.

[Now] they can show them. They can go to the learning platform in the school or to the school website and they can show them. And kids do. They don't do this meta-cognition, "let me articulate the model of learning I've been employing today at school" kind of thing, but they will show you a bit of art work they did, or something, if it's up on the school network. So you do get that parental engagement piece.

If schools put information about kids their grades, whatever that gets parents hooked. And parents like it. We did a survey and something like 80 per cent of parents say they'd like to know more about what goes on in school and would like us to use electronic means to tell them, because they're busy.

Have you checked out the stands here at the BETT show? Have you seen any cool pieces of tech that you would like to see in classrooms?"

What I think's really exciting is some of the things people are looking at around safe social networking, where the school acts as a hub for kids talking to kids. So it's not just spiking out from the home to wherever.

I think that's a powerful thing. Learning is a social enterprise. There's a great story one that a departmental official said that when he saw his own child doing his maths homework at home while at the same time on a social networking site talking to another kid in another village about their maths homework, and they were helping each other with it. He thought, "wow, this is something completely different".

The other really exciting things aren't really part of this programme just yet, because they haven't been worked through in the right kind of way gesture recognition, that kind of thing. You still can't do your history essay by dragging your finger across a screen. We're still keyboard bound with some of the things.

There are several stalls with very, very high tech things, such as 3D projectors. Most businesses don't have access to that yet there are schools that are actually using it. Do you worry that you're going to have these schools that are really really good with tech, and then others that are still trying to get computers to their students?

I think that would be a concern. I think that's why you need Becta, an agency advising people on how to manage your technology. We produce tools that help people work out where they are compared to other schools, what they need to be thinking about next.

Because you're right, a small primary school, where everybody's busy and everybody's teaching, doesn't have the head room to think about all of this. It's not that they can't manage their budget, it's when do they find time to think about it?

So another part of our role is showing people what can be done, which is why we run things like our reward schemes, why we have next generation learning charter schools, which is all around that, helping schools develop their vision and plan more effectively, and think creatively about this.

You will see things that astonish you in primary schools. You'll see kids learning about the heart with a 3D pulsating heart in the middle of the room. It's astonishing.

That's interesting, because one of the criticisms we've heard about Becta is that the supplier lists and recommendations are too prescriptive...

It's interesting this kind of stuff. If I can say what I think our role in it is it depends on the case sometimes we produce lists because Let me wind back. We can't be prescriptive, because we have no power to prescribe. Schools can buy what they like from whoever they like.

Occasionally what we do is see schools are buying whiteboards, or something like that, and then we go out to the market, set a specification for whiteboards, and if a company fits that specification we'll set up a framework contract for schools. Some schools take it up - most do - it's usually good value for money because we're working across the piece.

But often the claims about it being over prescriptive are a misunderstanding, because we simply don't have the power to say "you can only buy this."

We'd like to think that the things that we put on our frameworks are good, but there are other sorts of issues that apply, because it's public money which often steers us away from the more cutting edge and innovative stuff, because it's unproven. I can understand a lot of suppliers are frustrated about that, but there isn't any real way around that.

There are a whole lot of other things, like being EU compliant, which we know a lot of suppliers don't like. But it's just the way the world works, I'm afraid.

We try to go for as much choice as possible, and we try to refresh some of these lists as often as possible. But there will always be a tension, and there will always be some suppliers thinking "we've just got a great new product, but we're too small to get involved with all this and we're not on your list." I can see why they might be frustrated by that. But hopefully they can see that when you're talking about big amounts of government money, that's just the way it's going to be.

If schools want to take a punt on this new, untested thing, they're free to do that.

Following from that, Becta seems like it's been a lot more open to open source technology lately. How will that take shape in the future, and do you see many schools going down that road?

A few years ago, we said that schools should be looking at open source. We want to see a mix, because we're agnostic, but open source is certainly a credible alternative.

Now, we'd be wary about anything that put an additional technical burden on schools. Some of the things where it really works, like in higher education where they've gone heavily for open source, they've also got people who are developing the open source products and sharing and that sort of thing. That would be a minority sport in the average primary school. The average primary school needs a lot of support around any product.

One of the things we'd like to see is people supporting open source in schools so that it's less dependent on the enthusiasms of the particular teacher. We're seeing people starting to do that but at the same time we've got to recognise where the world is. There are habits out there that are going to take a time to change, and that's just the facts of life.

You've seen a lot of schools. What do the most successful ones have in common?

The first thing that they're doing is there school leadership and their governors have developed a vision for what they want their school to be doing with technology, they're not just buying stuff.

If you were to give me only 10 minutes in a school, and I wanted to guess how good the ICT was, I would not go to where the technology is, I'd go to the head office - the deputy head office, the senior management team - and ask them a few questions. And that's no different from any other organisation.

The second thing and again, I'm not going to talk about technology is the best schools have got a really clear focus on how they want kids to learn. Do they want their kids to learn collaboratively, individually, at home? They've got a view of learning, if that makes sense. And then what they've done is they've bought the technology that works with that.

There are other factors. They've professionalised their technical support, by either doing it in-house professionally and properly, or buying a service that does it. So there are a few features like that.

What else is there? When they do their curriculum plans, right at the outset they're thinking about how they could use technology. They're engaging parents, trying to engage parents by having after school sessions where they learn about technology.

It's those sort of attributes. It isn't that they've got some sort of technology like 3D or handhelds or whatever. They tend not to be the things that predict the difference. It tends to be the human behaviour, planning, that kind of thing that makes the difference.

There are other things, like teachers' own access to technology. It's no good parents being able to access the school after hours if teachers can't.

It's systematic, a vision - it isn't that they've gone for a particular technology or technical route. That might turn out to be the case down the line, but that isn't the case at the moment, it's more about the people things.