'The government is committed to edtech' just very, very quietly

'Edtech is one of the great hopes of the British economy.'

A bit worryingly, it is one of only six ‘great hopes’, added Liam Maxwell, national technology adviser to the UK government.

Maxwell made this comment at the inaugural Edtech UK Global Summit in November last year. This was a coming together of the edtech industry, led by Google, and no fewer than five UK government departments.

“The fact that we're all here today,' explained the Department for Education’s head of edtech policy and data strategy, 'is a signal that the government is committed to [edtech],” .

  UK government departments supporting the  Edtech UK Global Summit , November 2016

UK government departments supporting the Edtech UK Global Summit, November 2016

When I first set out to understand if, and to what extent, the tech industry was lobbying for education reform in England, I thought it might be easy, or at least possible to find out from the government.

I knew that the Department for Education didn't have a great record on transparency under Michael Gove. He was caught using a private email account belonging to his wife to discuss government business, and Gove's aide advised colleagues to do likewise, thus greatly diminishing the possibility of disclosure under freedom of information law. Large amounts of correspondence were also unaccountably deleted during Gove's reign.

But, with Gove’s successors Nicky Morgan and Justine Greening at the helm, I thought we'd have more openness.

A number of things had made me curious to find out the Department’s take on technology.

While Gove had publicly signalled that he was all about tradition and conservative values – discipline, uniform, latin and gold-inscribed bibles for every school – he was also hanging out with some serious tech-reformers while Education Secretary.

In 2013, for instance, he was guest of honour at a reform summit hosted by Jeb Bush’s Foundation for Excellence in Education, which aggressively lobbies for online schools (and until Trump made her his education secretary, counted arch-reformer, Betsy DeVos, as a board member). To a question from his audience on the techno-reform of education, Gove predicted: ‘the change is coming and it will be huge.’

There was also what Gove was reading. In a 2012 speech, he praised a book by two US reformers, Terry Moe and the late John Chubb called Liberating Learning. An ‘excellent book’ on how technology will see children’s learning ‘liberated from the dead hand of the past' in Gove's view.

It's a frightening read, describing as it does how – in the minds of free market reformers – technology can be used to defeat teacher unions and crush opposition to their plans for education. Here’s a flavour of it:

‘To put it simply: the seepage of technology into the [education] system - which cannot be stopped and will continue - works slowly and inexorably to undermine the political power of the teachers unions. With their power to resist weakened over time, the floodgates will then be opened - not only for high-tech innovation, but also for a wide range of reforms that have much to contribute to American education.’

Beyond Gove’s tech conversion, there was also the successful campaign by the edtech industry to get computing on the curriculum. This isn’t bad in itself, but getting kids into coding is on the list of ‘'battle strategies' that tech interests like US investors GSV Capital, a sponsor of the UK Summit, are pushing to secure radical reform of schools.

We also saw the creation in 2011 of the Education Foundation, a reform lobby group with a focus on technology, funded by Google, Facebook, IBM, Pearson, McKinsey and co. Among its activities, the Foundation discussed strategies on ‘growing the UK education reform movement’ with its US counterparts, including the Foundation for Excellence in Education and boasted of meetings in No.10. It later spun off the UK’s first edtech trade body, Edtech UK, organisers of November's Global Summit in London.

Then there was the appointment of Rachel Wolf in September 2015 as an adviser to PM David Cameron on 'technology, innovation and education'. According to Lord Jim Knight, former Schools Minister turned edtech lobbyist, Wolf was tasked with writing an edtech strategy for the UK.

'I think the macro is starting to emerge,' Knight said, 'but not necessarily from the Department for Education.’ Wolf, he said, had told him at a meeting in January 2016 that she would have an edtech strategy within a year.

So, that's where I started. Who was Wolf consulting, I wanted to know, to come up with this plan for schools?

That’s when I hit the first of many walls.

The Cabinet Office didn’t want us to know who Wolf was talking to because, in its words, it might deter people from talking to her if they knew it was going to be made public ‘prematurely’. Please can I have the information, I appealed. It’s just a routine list of meetings. Five months and a nudge from the Information Commissioner’s Office, the answer was again ‘no’.

Another six months and a proper ICO shove later, we got a list from her first four months in post. She had met Google and Microsoft, obviously, plus: PwC; Merrill Lynch; the academy chains Ark, Harris Federation and Reach Academies; the free market think tanks Policy Exchange and CentreForum and a bunch of others. And that was it. Any meetings after that, and any correspondence between Wolf and these folk, was denied.

(At least, though, they had held on to her records. The Department for Education wiped the account of her husband, James Frayne, after his time as Gove’s special adviser).

Over at the Department for Education, was it possible, I asked, to know anything more about Nicky Morgan’s discussions on edtech, for example with then Cabinet Office minister Matthew Hancock, a man 'passionate' about edtech who pledged to support the industry ‘in every way I can’ at the recent Summit. No, came the answer. The briefings shuttling between them are secret.

Could I see any exchanges between Hancock and, say, edtech investor Saul Klein? He was also present at the Summit and explained the $4trillion appeal of education to tech investors. No, because to do so would ‘weaken Ministers’ ability to discuss controversial and sensitive topics free from premature public scrutiny’. There’s that word ‘premature’, again. We get to scrutinise things after... what?

What about discussions between schools minister, Lord Nash, and edtech companies? Could I have details of the ‘private’ meeting requested by Nash with darlings of the edtech world, Bridge International Academies, for instance? The Department has ‘no records of this meeting’, and yet, according to Bridge International Academies, it definitely took place.

What about the piece of work looking at ‘the government’s role in the development of technology in schools’, which the Department for Education’s head of edtech policy mentioned at the Summit. Could the public see that? Nope.

Can we know what schools minister, Nick Gibb was talking to Google about at a meeting in March 2016? No. Can we see Nick Gibb's correspondence with Google? No. Can I know who from Google he was meeting? No.

You see the pattern.

All of which means what? The government has hired someone to come up with an edtech strategy, but then don’t publish one. They hire a team to implement reform, but don’t tell us the plan. They hold discussions with Microsoft, Google, Apple, edtech lobby groups, Gates Foundation, PwC, Parthenon, Bridge International Academies, edtech investors and many, many others in the edtech lobby and we can't know anything of these discussions.

Not 'prematurely', at least.

  (Image taken from the UK government's 'GREAT Britain' PR campaign).

(Image taken from the UK government's 'GREAT Britain' PR campaign).