An Interview with Charles Clarke

Charles Clarke was Secretary of State for Education and Skills in 2002. I interviewed him at the Education World Forum, 2013.The following is not a verbatim account, but has been checked by Mr Clarke before being published.Charles Clarke

TF: What is the purpose of the Education World Forum?

CC: To help Ministers throughout the world to understand the potential of educational technology for reforming and improving education in their own countries. By locating it so close to the BETT Show, in terms of time, it gives them the chance to not only attend this conference but also to visit the BETT exhibition to see what’s going on. Also, it gives them an opportunity to have a genuine and open dialogue with their counterparts from other parts of the world about the strengths and weaknesses of different approaches.

TF: How has the landscape/context changed since last year?

CC: There is now more discussion about the barriers to implementation, especially political ones – not party political – such as how to allocate scarce resources, where to focus your educational efforts, and how you might set about reforming the profession. These kind of questions represent an important context for discussions about educational technology, and the more these type of issues can be discussed in future years, the better it will be.

TF: What are the big challenges facing schools, in technology or otherwise?

CC: The biggest challenge is to ensure that the best technology arrives at the same time as training for teachers, so that they can actually use that technology in a constructive way. It’s possible to bring in technology that teachers will never use, or fail to bring in technology they would use and that would improve their teaching, because the introduction of the technology and the training in its use are out of sync.

TF: What do you think of Bring Your Own Device?

CC: To be honest I’m torn about it. In principle it’s an advantage for both teachers and pupils to use a device they’re familiar with. The disadvantage is that it’s quite difficult to synchronise teaching and learning if everyone is doing their own thing. Some way of harmonising or synchronising the teaching and learning would be beneficial. I don’t think the idea of banning the use of mobile phones in schools is a good one, because it is possible to use mobiles to really help pupils in certain ways. But I acknowledge in saying that that there are difficulties, it’s not straightforward. But generally speaking I am of the view that the more one can use the benefits of technology to help in different areas, the better. I think that mobiles do widen the way teachers think about things, and that’s something that’s worth doing.

TF: What should schools be getting excited about, in terms of ICT?

CC: I suppose what I think is significant for individual students is the ability to use technology to help you master certain competencies, and to become more confident in the way they do things. This is so not only in science and Modern Foreign Languages, but also in subjects like History.

TF: What are the big trends on the horizon?

CC: In some parts of the world the use of the mobile is an effective way of bringing resources to students that they wouldn’t otherwise have access to.

I think iPads and so on can be beneficial at higher levels of education, such as 6th Form, but I’m a bit sceptical of their benefits lower down the school. What is needed is an analysis by subject and educational age, and general context, as to what can help where.

My biggest criticism of this whole area is that there has been insufficient focus on pedagogy, on how this technology can help students learn. There needs to be more work, not so much in terms of research but in the sense of thinking about what would work best where. For example, there are many areas where the interactive whiteboard is a fantastic learning device, but there are many other areas where a mobile may be a much more effective device for an individual student. It’s a matter of evaluating the strengths and weaknesses of each in terms of enhancing the student’s performance. For example, the days of the computer lab are long gone. The Whiteboard initiative was intended to open up educational possibilities, which it has, but now I think it’s time to move on to a wider range of capacities. I think it’s a question of asking where can a particular initiative really help.

TF: What advice would you give to schools regarding technology (or anything else)?

CC: Carry out a needs analysis, but this has to be done flexibly. There are still large numbers of teachers who are sceptical about whether ICT yields any benefits at all. For example, can ICT in assessment help in giving feedback to students? It’s that sort of doubt that needs to be challenged. If you take most schools today, there’s a lot of ICT stuff around, eg whiteboards, laptops, mobile phones, some of it owned by the school, some by teachers, and some by parents. Can it help?

I’m still surprised at the lack of dialogue between schools and parents. Email, even at the basic level of “This week we are studying X. If you have any questions, please let me know.”, would lift the level of dialogue and therefore improve the benefits to students. Many parents want to help their children, but don’t know how. There should be a partnership between teachers and parents. In the context of this conversation, it is about the question: to what extent can technology help the parents to help their children?

For general information about the Education World Forum 2013, please visit the Education World Forum website. I hope to write about that event, including a discussion of Charles Clarke’s presentation, in the near future. Please take some time to visit Charles’s very interesting website at

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