How the market failed school ICT
Good business doesn't always mean private enterprise
Published 16:55, 23 January 12
The UK's educational system is publicly funded, and this means that it can be, and is, used as an instrument of the State.
The extent to which the educational system is instrumental in achieving the objectives of any government varies with their disposition and the times in which we live.
In a liberal democratic society, it is hoped that the educational agenda of the State broadly maps to the aspirations of the people. There is however surprisingly little consensus as to what that means in terms of how and what should be taught to children during 12 years of compulsory education.
I think it would be fair to say that consensus only safely reduces to literacy and numeracy which are duly compulsory.
The National Curriculum initiative in 1988 was an attempt to broaden the consensus. Today at age 16, additional compulsory subjects that lead to a qualification (GCSE/NVQ) are:
- Information and Communication Technology (ICT)
- Physical education
Finally, Religious Education remains compulsory though you don’t have to do an exam in it. Tellingly, if you take out ICT from the list and translate ‘Science’ into ‘Nature’ the consensus is much the same as it was for the emerging ideas in public education extending back into Edwardian times.
The key phrase above is ‘take out ICT’. I don’t mean to imply that to what we should do is remove ICT from the short list, merely emphasising just how important the subject must be to be there in the first place.
You may not agree with the ‘consensus’ above, but it cannot be dismissed lightly; such is the innate conservatism of education that the inclusion of ICT must be taken seriously. If you accept this position, then what follows is a scandal.
ICT alone amongst the others subjects above was thrown to the capitalist dogs. Put more soberly, tech procurement and curriculum development in schools was determined by that force majeure...the Market.
It’s exemplified by trade shows such as BETT, where a quick glance at the 2012 stands makes the status quo very clear. Corporate agenda and product promotion overwhelm all other voices, the small companies with educational products are long gone.
Schools adopt new technologies for educational reasons... don’t make me laugh.
The Market and compulsory public education for the benefit of a state are not naturally compatible. Whereas in contrast, the independent education sector IS a model of the Market. This is why the latter produces so many corporate bankers, lawyers, accountants and doctors and we don’t have manufacturing industries anymore.
Everyone, it seems, agrees that school ICT would benefit from going back to computing skills, especially coding. Within the new zeitgeist Raspberry Pi computers which would cost under £20 and use Linux would, according to some including the Secretary of State, solve many of the problems.
It won't. When Rasberry Pi enters the market, it may well be bought as a niche product. But in the event that with government support it thrives and scales, it will either be destroyed by a large corporation protecting its market or it will be bought out for similar reasons and its ex-owner will disappear on holiday to the Seychelles.
Now this post turns political.
The government used to own good businesses. Tech companies like British Airways, British Aerospace, British Rail and British Telecom were run by public sector employees, and jolly good they were too. If they had greedy bosses and shareholders, all to the good - as ‘they’ were ‘us’. The taxpayer was the owner and beneficiary, not offshore oligarchs or corporate fund managers.
Might I suggest that although we as a state could not afford to buy back such businesses that we sold at great profit (we were cash strapped then too), we could start again, at least on a small scale.
Obviously I'm not suggesting buying bust banks; that would just be silly. I mean buying businesses like Raspberry Pi because they a) might make some money and b) will meet the needs of our nation.
Nationalising (there I’ve said the N-word) good SMEs makes a lot of sense.
Receiving public investment into products that the nation needs and sell well is preferable to going cap in hand to Megabank-Short-Term-Profit-Mongers PLC and handing over the profits to overseas shareholders.
Let’s be more specific. We need low cost e-textbooks, but a protectionist copyright publishing market does not allow this (none at BETT), we need coding skills (none at BETT), but there is no money in this so no-one offers it. Oh well, that’s The Market for you, always right.
My serious point is that we shouldn't be surprised cry if schools deliver a useless ICT curriculum that reflects the agenda of private business and market forces (this includes exam vendors as much as software vendors and hardware vendors), but instead seek to understand from where it sprang.
If ICT really is a core subject, then act as if it were. Businesses, successful businesses do not have to always mean private business or service businesses.
Public sector jobs in productive industry, now there’s a novelty way of growing an economy.
Maybe all this Free, Open Source stuff really does turn you into a commie, after all. Who's for a rousing chorus of ‘The Red Flag'?