Britain’s tech industy is trying to get tablets into UK schools

Britain’s technology industry is running a concerted lobbying campaign within the Department for Education (DfE) as it aims to provide every schoolchild with a tablet computer.

Lobbying is being led by a consortium made up of Carphone Warehouse, Dixons and Google, who have the ear of Education Secretary Michael Gove about introducing tablet computers into schools.

The technology companies are part of an initiative led by Carphone Warehouse called Tablets for Schools, which originally aimed to give all 11-year-olds access to tablet computers by the end of 2013.

A roll-out has not yet materialised, but the lobbying effort continues unabated despite there being a lack of proof over whether tablets improve attainment and scepticism among educational experts about the introduction of tablets.

Carphone Warehouse chief executive Andrew Harrison says there is no commercial agenda and the companies involved with Tablets for Schools want to bridge the “digital divide” between the “haves and the have nots”.

The case being presented to Gove for introducing tablets into schools hinges on allegedly independent research by Dr Barbie Clarke, the mother-in-law of Carphone Warehouse boss Harrison.

Dr Clarke is the mother of Tristia Clarke, the wife of Harrison and commercial director at Talk Talk, a company that also has staff members on the Tablets for Schools project team.

Tablets for Schools has defended Dr Clarke’s research by claiming she is “supremely well qualified” and added the “research is independently peer reviewed by a group of eminent academics” that includes Professor Colleen McLaughlin (University of Sussex and University of Cambridge) and Professor David Buckingham (University of Loughborough).

Research was presented to Gove during a meeting in June by representatives from Tablets for Schools including Barbie Clarke, Harrison, Dixons chief executive Sebastian James, Google’s director of Android EMEA partnerships Richard Turner and Lucy Gradillas, an expert in reputation management and projector director of Tablets for Schools.

During the meeting Gove invited Tablets for Schools to sit on a quarterly technology seminar that looks at technology’s “implications for education”.

(Education minister Michael Gove at Sprites Primary in Ipswich. Source: Regional Cabinet - Flickr)

(Education minister Michael Gove at Sprites Primary in Ipswich. Source: Regional Cabinet – Flickr)

Tablets for Schools has brought on board David Mencer to help argue the case for tablets in order to benefit from his experience lobbying the DfE, which has resulted in him securing major businesses educational partnerships worth £43m.

The other stakeholders in Tablets for Schools are well versed in lobbying. The close ties between the Conservatives and Carphone Warehouse, Sebastian James and Google are well documented.

Carphone Warehouse chairman Charles Dunstone is part of the so-called Chipping Norton set, Carphone Warehouse co-founder David Ross is a major Conservative party donor and Sebastian James was in the notorious Bullingdon club with David Cameron.

Google chairman Eric Schmidt is on David Cameron’s business advisory group, global VP of public affairs Rachel Whetsone is married to Cameron’s former top advisor Stephen Hilton and Google had 23 meetings with government ministers in two years.

The influence the Tablets for Schools team has in the upper echelons of the Conservatives has helped the initiative reach as far as Downing Street.

In a YouTube clip, Dr Clarke reveals Tablets for Schools met the Cabinet Office in Downing Street, who “were interested but also said they had no money”.

The research was given a ringing endorsement from education and business minister Matthew Hancock at a Tablets for Schools conference last month during a talk he gave to around 400 teachers.

Hancock stood in for Gove who had the conference pencilled into his diary, but was forced to withdraw due to overseas travel commitments.

“Tablets for Schools will play a big role [in using tablets to improve teaching] because it has decided the best way to promote, develop and enhance that is through rigorous and objective analysis of the impact of technology on schools,” Hancock told delegates.

Previously schools relied on the quango Becta for objective information technology advice, but one of Gove’s first acts as education secretary was to abolish Becta.

Closing Becta saved an estimated £65m and was designed to put ICT decisions in the hands of teachers and prevent a top-down approach, but at the time critics including former government advisor Bob Harrison claimed the decision left schools without the advice they need.

Tablets for Schools is seeking to position itself as a go to place for independent advice and plans are now in place to turn it into an independent charity.

Teachers queuing for a free Microsoft Surface tablet at Tablets for Schools conference

(Teachers queuing for a free Microsoft Surface tablet at Tablets for Schools conference)

Both Harrison and James attempted to dismiss concerns that Carphone Warehouse and Dixons, who between them sell the most tablets in the country, do not have a commercial agenda.

 “If we don’t bring this together as a strategy our fear is this will be a case of the haves and the have nots”

“If Carphone Warehouse were doing it for ourselves we would not be doing it with our biggest competitor,” says Harrison. “We are not experts in education – but what we are absolutely passionate about is the belief that technology can change the world and all of our lives.”

Harrison and James argue they want to give something back to society with their not-for-profit initiative and prevent a “digital divide”.

“This train has already left the station. So many schools are implementing tablet technologies,” says Harrison. “This is happening and it will happen anyway.

“Unfortunately if we don’t bring this together as a strategy our fear is this will be a case of the haves and the have nots – a case of the private sector versus the public sector and it will create a digital divide in society”

Harrison claims he has warned Gove of the dangers of messing up a roll out of tablets into schools.

“I’ve said to the Secretary of State we should not roll out tablets to schools en masse until they know how to do it and they’ve got a reason why otherwise this will become a white elephant and will be the thing on the front of the Daily Mail saying it is a waste of taxpayers’ money,” said Harrison.

“Along the way we have encountered many sharks out there who are trying to take your money”

In the US there have already been high profile incidents of botched introductions of tablets into schools.

A $1 billion programme to provide Apple iPads for high school students in Los Angeles was halted after it came under fire after some students sidestepped the security system and accessed social media, online games and other blocked content.

And in October a $30m effort to provide 15,000 middle-school students Amplify tablets was suspended after 10% of the screens were broken.

Amplify is the education subsidiary of News Corp and it emerged during evidence given to the Leveson inquiry that Gove had met for dinner with Rupert Murdoch and Amplify chief executive Joel Klein on 28 June 2011 to discuss “multiple subjects, including education”.

James told teachers that in the short period Tablets for Schools has been in existence the initiative has already come across unscrupulous people attempting to exploit the situation.

“Along the way we have encountered many sharks out there who are trying to take your money and to encourage you to do things that we would consider to be wrong,” says James. “So we set ourselves a very clear first goal – which is how can we be a Lonely Planet guide for any school from any sector looking to implement these tablets?”

Tablets for Schools has told Gove the project is developing a “blueprint” to help schools make informed spending decisions, provide templates for letters to parents and advising on achieving positive “outcomes”.

The two-year long research project carried out by Dr Clarke is said to have cost hundreds of thousands of pounds, but is yet to find proof tablets improve attainment.

It is understood Tablets for Schools commissioned AQA subsidiary Alfiesoft to carry out research into tablets impact on attainment that was due out last September, but no such research has materialised.

(Jean-Marc Côté's vision of a school in 2000)

(Jean-Marc Côté’s vision of a school in 2000)

Is there any evidence tablets improve attainment?

“Up to now we’ve been very cautious about making any big statements about attainment because it is early days,” says Dr Clarke. “Of course that is the question everyone asks us and everybody in government would want to know as well.”

“An experienced teacher will recognise enthusiasm does not necessarily mean grasping concepts”

Valerie Thompson, chief executive at the e-Learning foundation, says proving technology increases results is the “holy grail” and points out it is very difficult to prove because children cannot be tested on like “lab rats”.

She adds an e-Learning study indicates tablets have very good results on text-heavy subjects, but when it comes to conceptual subjects such as science and geography children do not do as well with technology.

“An experienced teacher in this field will recognise activity does not always mean useful activity and enthusiasm does not necessarily mean grasping concepts that allow the child to make progress in their curriculum,” says Thompson.

Professor David Buckingham, who is on the Tablets for Schools pedagogy panel, highlights the long history of “grand claims and failed promises” when it comes to education.

Seymour Papert, the inventor of the Logo programming language, falsely predicted thirty years ago that “the computer will blow up the school” by giving the individual power over their own education.

And as far back as 1899 an illustration from French artist Jean-Marc Côté envisioned the classroom of 2000 would see books fed into children’s brains through a wire.

“The basic structure, the grammar of schooling, remains pretty much the same,” concludes Buckingham. “Technology does not make change, it is teachers that make change and all the research very clearly shows this.”

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