Tim Loughton to the BETT Education Leaders’ Conference

This speech was published under the 2010 to 2015 Conservative and Liberal Democrat coalition government

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Children and Families stresses the importance of technology in education at the BETT Education Leaders’ Conference and exhibition at Olympia.

Thanks Dominic, and a very happy new year to you all. It’s a real pleasure to start 2011 with everyone here at the BETT Education Leaders’ Conference and thank you for inviting me.

Can I just begin by paying my thanks to EMAP Connect and the British Educational Suppliers Association for once again organising the exhibition so brilliantly.

It is a huge credit to BETT, its sponsors and its participants, that there’s such an extraordinary wealth of innovation on display. Reflecting the fact that a staggering amount has changed in both the world of technology and in the classroom over the 27 years that this exhibition has been going on.

Who would have thought back in the 80s, for instance, that teachers would be using interactive whiteboards rather than getting their fingers covered in chalk dust.

And who would have thought that instead of an entire class crowding around a single ZX Spectrum, or in my days at school crowding round the abacus, the ratio of computers to pupils would stand at around one to three.

The pace of change has, frankly, been phenomenal. And there is no doubt that everyone involved in all those BETT exhibitions down the years have played a huge role in helping young people and teachers to benefit directly from that change.

So, my thanks once again to everyone who has played their part, and to all those who have come along today. It is a privilege to be able to open the conference officially.

Now, technology is, of course, very rarely out of the news in one form or another. Partly because it is, by its very nature ‘new’ and offers up exciting possibilities - making it good newspaper fodder (or perhaps Kindle fodder as we should now call it) and partly because it so often splits opinion - leaving some of us heralding the endless possibilities it brings, and others worrying about the risks that accompany them.

Generally speaking, the optimists tend to outnumber the pessimists. But inevitably, with any new frontier comes new risks, and there’s always going to be some concern greeting the arrival of innovation.

The difficulty for school leaders, parents and politicians of course, is how to balance the concern with the opportunity - and that’s why it’s so important that we listen to the best possible experts.

Unfortunately, I know one of the most eminent of those, Professor Tanya Byron, can’t be with us today. But I am very grateful for the work she has been doing with the Department.

A few weeks ago, she came in to the Department and gave a very informative, very inspiring presentation to the Secretary of State about the use of technology by children and young people.

One of the many interesting points she made then - which any of you who were at the Specialist Schools and Academies Trust conference in November might have heard her talk about - was the history of ‘moral panics’ we’ve had in the past with regard to new technology.

She talked, for example, about the consternation in the church that greeted the arrival of printing presses. The panic that greeted the arrival of the film industry in the 1920s - although it started before this in my constituency…

And she also mentioned the apparently frenzied debate surrounding the arrival of the sofa - which people were afraid would lead to young people lazing around all day.

However, as Tanya has argued so well, the arrival of new technology almost invariably offers far more opportunity than it does risk - and never has this been more true than it is today in the world of education.

Now, more than ever before, technology is of profound importance to young people’s development. We know it supports good teaching, we know it helps students get better results, we know it helps to reduce truancy…

We even know it can support higher order critical skills: such as reasoning, analysis, scientific enquiry - and by engaging students in authentic, complex tasks.

So, even though when most of us were growing up, it didn’t really matter whether you were particularly computer or gadget literate - in 2011, the world is very different.

And whether we see only the endless possibilities, or see only the risks, there’s no denying that technology is - as Microsoft’s Chief Executive Steve Bullmer once said - something that ‘makes real people more effective, every day, in some basic and fundamental thing that they want to do’.

Here in the UK of course, we can take some pride in the fact that we’ve adapted as quickly as we have to that transformation.

As many of you will know, we have the highest levels of technology in our classrooms of anywhere in the European Union. The majority of our children have their own online learning space, and practically every school in this country is hooked up to - and in many cases making great use of - broadband.

This is a huge credit to great headteachers and teachers, fantastic ICT suppliers like those exhibiting here and, of course, to young people themselves.

And it has left us uniquely well positioned - I think - to equip pupils with the technical expertise they’ll need to achieve to the very best of their abilities in a very tough, very competitive world.

Nonetheless, this conference is about the future of education, rather than the past. And we’re now facing very different challenges, and answering very different questions, to the ones we were facing 10, or even just five years ago.

It’s no longer simply about shoehorning technology into the classroom. It’s about how we help schools to access and use it effectively. And it’s about how we help young people to benefit from innovation safely.

Today, I want to look at both of these points. But - if I can - I’m going to start with the second, partly because I’ve spent much of my time in Government, and before that in opposition, campaigning on issues like child internet safety and child protection.

And partly because there’s been a huge amount of attention focused on the issue over the last few weeks.

Just this Monday, for example, we saw the head of Woldingham School in Surrey, Jayne Triffitt, outline her concerns over the abuse of the social networking site Little Gossip, after some students used it to spread malicious rumours about their peers and teachers.

On the same day, we saw the National Association of Head Teachers publish guidance for schools on how to deal with internet campaigns that target teachers or pupils - an issue that has also been championed by the NASUWT, amongst others, in recent years.

All of this action reflects the fact that online abuse - and cyber bullying in particular - has fast become the bindweed of the internet.

No matter where you cut it off, it always seems to creep its way back onto computer screens and wrap itself around children’s lives - and as a result, it’s become a hugely, hugely damaging phenomena.

We’ve seen young people targeted in virtual gaming environments - we’ve seen them targeted on sites like Facebook and Twitter. We’ve seen them targeted through mobile phones and email.

It is, in short, a very 21st century problem - and also a particularly nasty, particularly virulent one.

It is the nameless, faceless, witless kind of bullying that is such a unique feature of cyberspace. The kind of bullying where a child comes home from school and finds a rumour splashed all over a website - or opens up an email to discover a doctored picture of themselves distributed to everyone in their address book.

In this respect, the computer, phone, tablet and games console have the potential to become like a Trojan horse, smuggling provocation, innuendo and rumour into the home in a way that no other generation has ever had to contend with.

For any of us who are parents, that kind of threat is of course hugely concerning. It’s bad enough in the playground or in the classroom, but when it infiltrates your home, it can make it impossibly difficult to know how to protect your children.

We think the time has come to restore the balance of power back in favour of parents - and to ensure that the opportunities that technology brings are managed both effectively and sensibly.

Can that be done through legislation? By increasing regulation? Or by policing every website from the centre of Government? We don’t think so - simply because the internet is impossibly fast moving and no one individual, group or organisation can realistically tackle it on its own.

Instead, we know it has to be a joint effort, with government, industry, business, retailers, schools and parents all taking responsibility to stamp out abuse in the system wherever we see it.

As an example of how this can work, I was at an event at Google a few months ago where the ‘Fix my street’ website was mentioned.

For anyone who hasn’t heard about it, it’s basically a site where people can go to report anything that might need attention in their communities - like pot holes in the road or broken street lights.

Over the years, it’s been pretty successful - and it’s now got to the point where we’ve even seen an Australian spin-off being launched - called, in the best of Aussie traditions: ‘It’s Buggered Mate’.

Now, the reason why I think these sites have worked is because they rely on the idea of collective responsibility. The idea that we should all take a stake in the issue, rather than rely on others to take it for us.

In the case of cyberbullying, that means encouraging the fantastic work that’s being done by cyber-mentors through the Beatbullying charity; it means parents reporting abuse; it means teachers alerting education technology providers to any potential risks; it means those in industry reacting quickly and decisively to protect children; and - finally - it means Government creating the conditions where all of these things can happen effectively.

That’s why my colleagues on the UK Council for Internet Safety, which I now co-chair, want to move increasingly towards tough self-regulation. With internet service providers having more responsibility for managing potentially harmful sites - and parents and children having greater power to report abuse.

At the same time, we are also discussing how we give those same parents the most up-to-date advice and guidance on new technologies, so that they are empowered enough to spot and prevent abuse at the first opportunity. Too often parents are not properly factored into the equation.

As many of you will know, we are currently in discussion with representatives in the sector about how all of this is going to happen. And there’s now a very clear, very determined commitment within the industry towards developing a robust and effective self-regulatory framework, that will combat cyberbullying and keep children safe.

A promising move I think, and we’re pleased that this is being backed up by organisations like Facebook and Microsoft, who are playing a vital role through their own membership of the Council.

Indeed, I am delighted to be able to announce today that BSI has just awarded its first ever kitemark for parental control software to Net Intelligence, which we will be handing over shortly.

A fabulous achievement on their part, and a hugely important one for two reasons in particular.

Firstly, because it lets us take advantage of the opportunities that technology brings and minimise the risks.

Secondly, because it allows us to place technology at the centre of educational reform in the future - a crucial point I think, because while we are doing fantastically well in terms of bringing technology into the classroom, we sadly aren’t doing anything like as well when it comes to educating our children and young people to reach their full potential.

We know, for instance, that we’ve been slipping further and further behind our global competitors over the last few years, with the OECD international performance tables showing that since the year 2000, we’ve fallen from 4th to 16th in science, from 7th to 25th in literacy, and from 8th to 28th in maths.

And we also know that there is now an historically high divide in attainment between those from the poorest backgrounds, and those from the wealthiest.

This drift cannot be allowed to continue. It’s unfair on children who only get one chance of a good education, it’s unfair on their families, and it’s unfair on our society and the businesses who form the backbone of our economy.
Fortunately however, technology does provide a unique opportunity to help us regain that competitive edge by supporting us to deliver the improvements we need to make.

And in our recent schools White Paper, The Importance of Teaching, we set out a comprehensive programme of reform for schools to allow us to build that truly world-class education system.

That includes paying greater attention to improving teacher quality, granting greater autonomy to the front line, modernising curricula, making schools more accountable to their communities, harnessing detailed performance data, and encouraging professional collaboration so that we can become one of the world’s top performers - and close the gap between rich and poor.

That is the challenge facing us - and technology - we think - will play a critical supporting role in meeting it.

Indeed, you only have to have a quick wander around the exhibition area here to see some of the brilliant ways that technology-based learning can enrich the curriculum.

For example, I’ve been incredibly impressed with how video games like the Sims Series and Civilisation can be used for education purposes. My daughters certainly spent hours on it when they were younger.

And I know many of you will also have seen the fantastic games that have been developed by mathematician Marcus Du Sautoy, which have shown how children’s imaginations can be harnessed to allow a deep understanding of even the most complex ideas.

However, in order to derive the maximum benefit from this kind of innovation, education leaders have to have the final say over what technology they use, and when they use it.

We don’t think that teachers or school business managers should come to BETT with a shopping list from central government. The world of technology is simply too fluid for Whitehall to be able to decree what should, or shouldn’t be in the classroom.

Instead, schools should come ready to make procurement decisions that are based on a detailed knowledge of their own pupils - and be ready to draw up their own wish list of technologies that will inspire young people.

That might mean introducing voting technology into the classroom, which has happened so successfully in many schools already - ‘democratizing’ the learning experience and making it more interactive.

It might mean installing a recording studio, it might mean setting up video links with schools around the world, it might mean using 3D TV.

Whatever it is, and however it works, we know that if we want to be truly, truly ambitious about maintaining a technological edge in this country, we have to give teachers and school leaders that flexibility and power to make their own choices - and we also have to free up as much investment as we can for them to spend on technology.

None of this, however, means that schools are being asked to work in isolation.

Over the coming months and years, government will continue to play a crucial supporting role - helping education leaders by taking on procurement and support for special educational needs; by supporting schools to achieve value for money in things like bulk software licensing; by identifying and sharing best practice as it evolves in the classroom, and by supporting suppliers to ensure value for money.

The straightforward reality though, is that schools, teachers and industry know the best way to extract value from technology in education.

And it seems to me that the BETT exhibition is a perfect example of how those freedoms can be used most effectively to help teachers raise standards in our schools - and to take full advantage of the opportunities that technology creates.

To end, let me just thank Dominic again for hosting this fantastic conference - and thank his team for all their incredibly hard work in setting up the exhibition.

The future of education in this country depends on how well we equip young people to go on and succeed in their lives. And all of us know that if we are serious about achieving that ambition, it has to include giving them access to the very best that technology has to offer.

The time has come to take advantage of that opportunity by encouraging school leaders to come along to exhibitions like this, and decide for themselves what pupils need.

The time has come to ensure that children and young people are able to take advantage of the wonders that technology brings - without the dangers.

The time has come to place technology at the absolute centre of our aspirations for a world class education sector.

So, thank you all once again. It has been a huge pleasure to be here today and I hope you enjoy both the rest of the conference, and the exhibition itself - which is such a wonderful advert for some of the truly outstanding British educational technology that is being used in classrooms right across the world.

Thank you.

Tim Loughton speech to UK education leaders @ BETT conference