Calls for a Royal Commission to address the effective use of technology in education

Calls have been made for a “radical re-engineering of the classroom” to address the effective use of technology in education, as well as a radical overhaul of examinations.

Calls for a Royal Commission to address the effective use of technology in education

Early this month (January), a coalition of UK parliamentarians, educationalists, entrepreneurs and teachers’ leaders called for a Royal Commission on education to sweep away the “factory model” of teaching and learning currently taking place in schools.

The group, led by Robert Halfon, chair of the all-party Commons education select committee – and which included EDUCATE Ventures Research Limited’s director, Professor Rose Luckin as a signatory – wrote to the government urging a “radical re-engineering of the classroom” with “the effective use of technology, including AI”. The overhaul would also consider the scrapping of GCSEs – examinations taken by students in England and Wales at 16 – in favour of a “broad baccalaureate, incorporating academic and vocational education at age 18”.

It is a discussion that it long overdue in the UK. The Department of Education has so far failed to respond proactively to the lessons that educators, learners and their parents had to learn so rapidly because of the school lockdown that began in March 2020 as a result of the pandemic. They adapted at speed to new ways of teaching and learning, developing skills and proficiency in tech use, with varying degrees of success. Ministers, however, have so far not grasped the extent of experience that now exists within the education system nor do they understood the need to enhance this further.  Thousands of laptops that were promised by the government to disadvantaged families to enable children to learn remotely, had still not materialised as the country was plunged into a second major shutdown at the beginning of January.

It is as if the only education worthy of the name, is where students and educators are together in one room.

In an open letter entitled Education system not fit for purpose, and published in the Sunday Times on January 11, the campaigners said the education system needed to nurture “talent and create opportunities for everyone”.

Previous reforms, it said, tended to focus on the two opposites of knowledge and skills which created a false divide. “Knowledge is only relevant alongside the skills to interpret it; skills are only useful when there is knowledge to draw on”, the letter stated.

It pointed to the out-of-date technology in schools, and the lack of teachers who were “sufficiently incentivised to integrate it into their practice”.

The group said that the “factory model, where each pupil advances at the same pace in every subject regardless of ability and interest” must be swept away in favour of “personalised education through the use of new technology”.

“Clearly, the growth of AI and robotics will have a profound impact, so we need a special royal commission on education, AI and exam reform that would include experts and report within nine months,” the letter continued.

“It is essential we understand and prepare the nation for the impending changes in our economy and society.”

Professor Luckin said the Covid crisis and school lockdowns had exposed the challenges facing schools and families. EDUCATE Ventures Research Limited is to release its own research into the lessons learned from the Covid pandemic in February.

“The pandemic has shone a spotlight on the real difficulties that many educators and families have when it comes to benefitting from the use of technology — it is essential that ALL learners are given the vital learning lifeline that technology can provide,” she said.

“AI has huge potential to support educators and parents to ensure that all learners receive high quality education that meets their needs. The Exam algorithm debacle, misused AI and risks damaging people’s willingness to engage with what is a transformational opportunity for a huge improvement in our education system that will benefit learners and teachers.

“The shameful lack of engagement with innovation, data and AI by the Department of Education is depriving young people of the opportunity to a high-quality education that can weather the challenges of pandemics and school closures and restrictions. Worst of all, in this scenario those most in need are also those who miss out most.”

The call for a commission to address the use of technology in education come at a time of growing concern about reduced social mobility between different socio-economic groups, and the lack of training and growing skills gaps among adults.

In the UK, during the first lockdown, an estimated 2.3 million children did no, or hardly any, schoolwork at home.

Britain also performed poorly in the latest PISA rankings. Andreas Schleicher, Director of Education, OECD, said greater recognition was needed that the world is changing: “The kind of things that are easy to teach, easy to test are now all too easy to digitise, to automate…. If Britain wants to do better on PISA it should probably teach fewer things at greater depth, focus more on conceptual understanding” he said.

Of course, the UK education system has been here before. It is not the first time that campaigners have sought to plug the divide between the academic and vocational, and it is a recurring theme in British politics, where education is a long-suffering pawn in a constant state of flux.

In 2010, upon coming to power the Conservative education secretary, Michael Gove, scrapped the 14-19 Diploma programme which had been implemented by a Labour government barely five years earlier, and which had offered young people qualifications that combined work-based skills with a knowledge base.

Since then, T-levels – branded as a world-class qualification – have been introduced for the 16-18 age group as an alternative to A levels, apprenticeships and other 16 to 19 courses. T-Levels focus on vocational and digital skills and were launched for the first time in September 2020, with a phased implementation of subjects. It is too soon to evaluate their success or effectiveness.

A Royal Commission, based on a cross-party approach and the removal of party politics, could go some way towards creating a truly world-class system, that will allow young people from the UK to compete on a global stage.


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