By Crispin Weston

The story so far

If you are interested in ICT and the use of ed-tech in UK schools, you cannot have failed to hear about FELTAG and ETAG.

FELTAG (Further Education Learning Technology Action Group) was set up by Matt Hancock, Minister for Skills and Enterprise at BIS, to make recommendations for the better use of ed-tech in Further Education.

ETAG (Education Technology Action Group) was given essentially the same task with respect to the whole of the education service and not just FE. Although Professor Stephen Heppell, who was not involved in FELTAG, was invited to chair ETAG, there has nevertheless been considerable continuity of personnel between the two groups.

The following timeline summarises the story so far.

January 2013

Matt Hancock sets up FELTAG

October 2013

FELTAG publishes draft proposals

January 2014

Matt Hancock launches ETAG at BETT

March 2014

FELTAG submits final report

23 April 2014

ETAG publishes base document and opens consultation

16 June 2014

Matt Hancock publishes BIS response to FELTAG recommendations

23 June 2014

ETAG consultation due to close.

My criticism of the FELTAG/ETAG position

In principle, these are exciting times. Having spent the first three years of its administration backing away from any active involvement in ed-tech, the government now appears to recognise not only that ed-tech has an important part to play in improving educational provision, but also that the government has an important part to play in making that happen.

In practice, I do not believe that the ed-tech community has yet taken advantage of the opportunity it has been given. I believe that the thinking behind the FELTAG report and the ETAG base document is mistaken. I have explained my position at length on my blog in an analysis of the ETAG base document, in my own policy recommendations, and in a critique of the FELTAG report—but in brief, my criticism can be summarised by the following table.

The ETAG/FELTAG position

My position

There is plenty of anecdotal evidence to show that teaching with technology is effective.

The quantitative research shows that teaching with technology (as practiced to date) has little or no impact on learning outcomes.

The technology itself is not that important—it’s what teachers do with it that counts.

No-one has developed education-specific software that we need.

Change must be led by teachers, who need to be supported by supply-side funding initiatives, better regulation and training.

Change must be led by industry, operating in competitive, well-informed market, supported by good standards for data interoperability.

This is about innovating with technology.

This is about innovative technology.

No-one on the FELTAG/ETAG group has yet been willing to engage seriously with these arguments. You will find no substantive debate on the #etag Twitter stream and no response given to these points when submitted to the FELTAG consultation.

The government’s response to FELTAG

The BIS response to FELTAG was published on Monday 16th June 2014. It spoke FELTAG’s language about the “innovative use” of technology, rather than “innovative technology”; it spoke about “online learning” (hardly an innovative concept) and spoke warm words about the report. But when it came to FELTAG’s 39 substantive recommendations, the government response was largely silent. Change, it said, is for the FE sector to embrace, not for government to impose.

While the key authors of the report commented on Twitter that BIS had given a “very positive reaction to #FELTAG”, most other commentators were less impressed: “why is the government response to #FELTAG so dull?”, “very disappointed by the response to #feltag much of it sounds like business as usual?”, “interesting to see the bits BIS have quietly ignored”, “#FELTAG response gives the impression of unresolved pushback from Ofsted, SFA, Ofqual etc.”, “shameful waste”.

Did anyone seriously expect the government to say anything else? Given its commitment to teacher autonomy and widespread criticism of top-down prescriptions, did anyone really expect them to use Ofsted to drive through a pedagogical revolution from above, on the basis of no serious research evidence?

What next for ETAG?

The purpose of writing government reports is to influence government policy—and no-one has ever developed government policy by cobbling together a rag-bag of what seemed like good ideas at the time, harvested from Twitter. Useful policy recommendations must be focused, pragmatic and backed by a compelling rationale. If there are views of ed-tech that a report rejects, it must explain why it rejects them.

If ETAG is to learn its lesson from FELTAG, then it will open its processes to genuine debate, even where that debate implies criticism of its own initial positions. Encouraged by Bruce Nightingale’s contributions to the #etag stream on Twitter, I have got involved in a number of very healthy discussions about ed-tech data on the periphery of the ETAG consultation: with Dominic Norrish from the United Learning Group, with Professor Diana Laurillard of the Institute of Education (a member of FELTAG and ETAG), and with Kristen DiCerbo of Pearson (who held a webinar on educational data).

Members of the ETAG committee should be falling over each other to get involved in this sort of debate, absorbing the discussion into the ETAG process and responding to the arguments that they find there. But the response is muted and reluctant, at the very best. Last week, I had constructive and very enjoyable meetings with Professor Stephen Heppell, Chairman of ETAG, and Gary Spracken, a teacher from the IPACA Academy who has also recently joined the committee. I see no reason why an open, constructive debate could not be held and a stress-tested consensus developed.

When its Twitter consultation finishes on 23 June, ETAG must resist the temptation to disappear into a closet and write the report that it always intended to write in the first place. It must realize that FELTAG mark 2 will receive the same, polite dismissal from the government as did FELTAG mark 1. It must understand that it needs to open its processes to genuine challenge and welcome into the debate everyone who is prepared to participate in an open and constructive spirit, with attention to the evidence and to the arguments, and in a common determination to produce a report that cannot, this time, be ignored.

Because no-one who believes in the power of technology to transform education can let opportunities as good as these go to waste.

About Crispin Weston

Crispin Weston has spent the last 20 years arguing that better data standards are an essential prerequisite for effective education technology. He has worked on a variety of projects with BESA, the DfE, and US-based LETSI. He challenged alleged irregularities in Becta’s procurement of Learning Platforms in 2007, founded SALTIS, and subsequently worked for Becta on a project to improve the interoperability of learning content. He chairs BSI’s committee for IT in education, representing the UK on formal international standards organisations such as ISO/IEC. Crispin is a controversialist. He regularly challenges orthodox views of the role of technology in education in his blog at

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