review of the PA-BESA conference 2016

The annual conference of the Publishers' Association  and the British Educational Suppliers Association took place on November 25th in London, and had the theme of "Shifting Landscapes". Here's an overview of it, and how it related to education technology. 

Opening keynote

The conference started with a keynote by Lord Jim Knight. He mentioned that there is currently a worldwide shortage of primary (elementary) school teachers to the tune of 20 million. I don't know what the issues are outside of the UK, although I can guess. I do know that I find it increasingly difficult to convince young people to go into what I have always regarded as a very noble profession. (For my reflections on why this might be, please see The future of the teaching profession.)

He also mentioned that the TES resources area, to which teachers can upload resources for others to use either for free or for money, has 700,000 peer reviews. That sounds pretty impressive.  I always look at the reviews before buying something from Amazon, so why shouldn't the same principle apply to teaching resources?

Relevance to education technology:

I first met Lord Knight when he was the schools minister and I was Chair of Naace. He struck me then, and now, as a keen advocate of the appropriate use of education technology in schools, which may be deduced from the fact that he is MD of Online Learning at TES Global Ltd. Also, the existence of the TES resources area is itself a good example of useful education technology of course.

Multi-academy trusts panel

Hugh Greenway of the Elliot Foundation, said that less than £20 is spent per pupil each year on books.

Relevance to education technology:

I don't think that figure means much by itself. If, for instance, a school has bought into an ebook or other digital resources service, then not spending very much on physical books doesn't seem quite so bad in my opinion.

Second keynote

Laura McInerney gave a humorous and incisive talk on the subject of what makes a good Secretary of State for Education. One of the factors for success is, apparently, not worrying about whether you achieve anything or not, or about being liked. You can find out more about England's Education Secretaries by looking at Laura's Great Education Secretaries website.

Relevance to education technology:

From a personal perspective, I think some Education Secretaries have been good for education technology, others less so. A good one to my mind was Charles Clarke, who at the time did much to get interactive whiteboards into schools. I know they are regarded by many as old-fashioned, and not necessarily conducive to interacting with pupils while moving around the classroom), they were quite innovative at the time, and it was good to have someone in Government advocating for education technology.

To give you an idea of how important that can be, I first saw interactive whiteboards at Bett in 1997. I made an appointment to see my headteacher, to ask him for £5000 with which to buy one. The first thing he said to me when I entered his office was "Before we start, why have you just spent £60 on a spare ink cartridge? OK, what can I do for you?". I didn't see much point in asking for £5k when £60 seemed to be an issue!

Shifting demographics panel

This was an interesting discussion on the fact that there are fewer teachers and more pupils. Interestingly, John Howson made the point that because teachers are leaving after 3 to 5 years in the job (just when they are getting good at it!), there are too few teachers to fill leadership roles such as middle management posts (heads of department).

Relevance to education technology:

Two things. 

First, I think I heard this correctly: 68% of the target for new Computing teachers has been met. Which means there's a shortfall of 32%. Not good.

Secondly, Andy Rennison, MD of 3BM, said that they have been working with 2Simple on a new Computing scheme of work for young children. Given that all of 2Simple's stuff is good, that will be worth looking out for.

Shifting role of education technology panel

This was an interesting discussion. I've pulled out a few of the key points below.

Relevance to education technology:

Colin Hughes, of Collins Learning, said that 14% of teaching time in the UK rests on digital material.

Naimish Gohil, CEO of Show my Homework, said that when it comes to digital products, schools should ask where the data will be stored.

Third keynote

Professor Dennis Hayes, of the University of Derby, talked about 'therapeutic education' and 'the snowflake generation'. His basic position is that if students are having a hard time, the best thing you can do as a teacher is teach them, not offer them counselling or try to protect them through so-called 'safe spaces'.

He gave some pretty derisory examples of what he called 'sham' practices -- not only in universities, but even in primary schools. I sensed from the audience's questions and also from chatting to people afterwards that quite a few people were uncomfortable at what he was saying, I think because it may have come across as uncaring and uncompromising. Personally, I thought it needed to be said.

He has written a book, with Kathryn Ecclestone, called The Dangerous Rise of Therapeutic Education (Amazon affiliate link). I look forward to reading it.

Dennis also informed the conference that after Christmas 2017 a free book will be available, called 'It's Teaching NOT Therapy!'. Sounds good! Probably the best way of checking for that is to look at his profile by clicking on the link in his name, above. If/when I come across it I'll mention it on this website.

Relevance to education technology:

There isn't anything specific to education technology, except that I do think that the best thing that ICT and Computing teachers can do is teach the subject well, and honestly. By 'honestly', I mean not skirting around issues that students might find upsetting, like discussing cyber-bullying for example, or online stranger danger. I don't see how young people can protect themselves online if they are not told what warning signs to look out for. Not that I think teachers do skirt around such issues, but I thought it worth stating.

That's just one example, of course. I also happen to believe that a really engaging lesson or project can be immensely beneficial. This isn't the time or place to go into it, but in one multimedia project I ran, for example, some of the children really grew in self-esteem and a sense of achievement. 

Obviously, some pupils need the services of an educational psychologist. But I agree with Professor Hayes that the classroom isn't the place to provide them, and the teacher is not necessarily the right person to provide them.

Shifting assessment panel

It was good to see Chris Smith on the panel talking about real-time assessment with Target Tracker. This is a product I've known of for a long time.

Relevance to education technology:

See the comment above. Also, Stuart Kime, of Evidence Based Education, posed the question: 'Are the blind leading the blind?', and went on to advocate crowd-sourcing assessment questions. This is the approach used by Project Quantum. I have grave doubts about the process. It could only work well if the people doing the crowd-sourcing are knowledgeable in the area. The best aspect of Project Quantum, in my opinion, is the fact that students are asked why they gave the answers they did. Knowing that is potentially very helpful in discovering which questions are good for finding out what students know, understand and can do, and those which aren't so good.


Thus concludes my highly selective overview of the PA/BESA conference. I think it's interesting to learn of the perspective of publishers and others on the issues facing education technology in the UK today. I hope you found this interesting.

If you go to education conferences (or would like to), you may find my book useful. It’s called Education Conferences: Teachers’ guide to getting the most out of conferences. Click on the link for more information.