Is Freedom Always a Good Thing?


As you may know, there’s a bit of a revolution going on in the UK as far as education is concerned. Schools can apply to become academies, and parents and others can apply to set up free schools. I don’t want to spend anyb time now going through what these are, except to note that being an academy or a free school affords a certain degree of freedom from local authority control or the exigencies of the National Curriculum. My purpose in penning this article is to ask a very simple question: as far as using technology in education is concerned, is freedom unequivocally a good thing?

Be careful out thereThe reason for asking is simple. I was teaching ICT (educational technology) and advising on it when the idea of grant-maintained schools were put forward and put into practice, and in my experience they had some serious drawbacks. Based on that experience, I suggest that the following issues be addressed by anyone involved in the ICT side of things in such schools:

How will you make sure you get good, up-to-date advice?

One of the downsides of being outside the local authority is that you’re less likely to receive timely information, or be invited to attend ICT Co-ordinators’ Days and the like. As it happens, quite a number of local authorities have shed their ICT advisory staff, or cut down on them, so this will not be relevant in all areas. Nevertheless, the question still needs to be asked because of the axing of Becta.

I realise that some people reading this will argue that they have never needed advice from advisors, consultants or Becta. It’s true that the landscape is very different in some respects from what it was 20 years ago. We have do-it-yourself professional development, self-help groups, a hundred and one ways of getting the information and advice that we need, courtesy of the internet and, especially, Web 2.0. However, what has not changed, and will never change, is the simple fact that people don’t know what they don’t know, and there are a lot of people who will flounder when it comes to finding, and then evaluating, advice in this field. If you are in this position, I’d recommend joining a community right away.

Do you have a plan?

Even if you’re confident in your ability to garner information and connect with people who can advise you, what happens to the school when you leave? From the school leader’s point of view, there needs to be a proper strategy or plan in place to ensure that the school will not fall apart ICT-wise once you’ve left.

Do you have support?

Another downside of coming out of the local authority’s ambit is not automatically having access to their technical support services, where these still exist. Whether the school opts for employing its own technician(s), or using a third party support service -– which could be the local authority’s service, or a different contractor, or a managed service provider --  it’s a good idea to have something in place, or to at least know what to do, should a disaster occur. Have you thought about this?

Do you have a sound ICT curriculum?

My worry about whizz-bang schemes of work that are centred on video and podcast production and so on is whether pupils are given a good grounding in computing or ICT concepts. If not, there’s a danger that their ICT education will be limited to acquiring certain skill sets, with little scope or ability to transfer their learning to other devices and software. The National Curriculum may not be ideal in some people’s eyes, but it does at least provide a statement of the minimal requirements of digital literacy, and a benchmark of success. Perhaps it might be improved and updated (these terms are not necessarily synonymous, mind you), but surely abandoning it completely is to throw the baby out with the bath water?

Do you have the budget you think you have?

Finally, I’ll end on a rather prosaic note. Academies are unable to claim back the Value-Added Tax (VAT) on their expenditure. With VAT set to rise to 20%, this is a serious matter. When given a sum of money to spend on ICT, the response must be “Thank you. Does that include VAT?”


I may have further information or insights to share once I’ve attended the Westminster Forum conference about academies and free schools. Teachers and school professionals qualify for a 15% discount from the standard entrance rate, and individuals may be eligible for further concessions.