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ICT: Costs a Lot, Delivers Little. Discuss.

You have to admire the way that everyone is happy to distort the truth if there's a "feel good" story in Education.

This story from the BBC is a nice example. It's headed Computers 'can raise attainment' and it continues:

High levels of computer technology in schools can improve attainment to an extent, a four-year study has found.

The £34m ICT Test Bed project by Becta in three deprived areas of England showed gains in some GCSE and primary school test scores.

The study involved 23 primary schools, five secondaries and three further education colleges.

These were in Barking and Dagenham, Sandwell and Durham - all areas of relative though different social and economic disadvantage.

Which sounds great until you read on:

[The schools] drew up their own plans and were given money - totalling £34m - to spend on "high levels" of hardware, software and training.

Results of the Test Bed schools were compared with similar institutions elsewhere and with national averages, in a study evaluated by Manchester Metropolitan and Nottingham Trent universities:

  • at Key Stage 1 (aged seven): "no significant differences"
  • in Key Stage 2 tests (aged 11), the rate of improvement was higher for Test Bed schools and some even passed the national average for English
  • at Key Stage 3 (14-year-olds): no significant differences
  • at GCSE (aged 16): no difference in overall pass rate, but Test Bed pupils did better than those in comparator schools in getting five good grades including English and maths
  • post-16: little change - Test Bed students scored same points per exam but took fewer A-levels than comparators.

So let's get this clear.

A government agency spent over £1 million per school, across 30 something schools, and the best they can report after four years is that there was some unquantified improvement for the 11 year-olds in the study.

And that no-one else showed any obvious benefit whatsoever.


I can't quite get over that the BBC ran this with such a positive headline.

Read on and you find:

Schools struggled to improve links with pupils' homes and to cater for those without computers or the internet.

Schools had found it "hugely time-consuming", prohibitively costly in software and "fraught with problems".

And how much has all this cost us?

Over the past decade the government has spent almost a quarter of a million pounds per school on ICT - more than £5bn in all.

And has, it appears, very little to show for it...

Of course there is an opportunity cost. In fact £5bn would have paid for some 20,000 teachers across that same timeframe.

According to my calculations that's roughly five teachers for every state secondary school in the UK. [data]

Becta were presumably pretty disappointed with their findings and their press release was just desperate to find some positive spin.

They tried this:

"There has been a shift in the views of teachers, in particular, with initial scepticism and apprehension being gradually replaced by optimism and confidence."

Well, yes. But that optimism and confidence isn't particularly justified. Certainly not in any meaningful sense.

Or, as Becta put it:

"At present the evidence on attainment is somewhat inconsistent, although it does appear that, in some contexts, with some pupils, in some disciplines, attainment has been enhanced."

Should you happen - like me - to be a UK tax payer, then I have very bad news. Because this is how Schools' Minister Jim Knight sees the matter:

"The Test Bed project demonstrates just how ICT has the power to transform young people's learning - both at school and beyond the school gate."

He added: "We will be looking to capitalise on this project and replicate it across the country."

Oh help...

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