England has fallen behind as an international EdTEch player, so is it time to bring back a centralised body to oversee the sector, asks Tony Parkin

It is two decades since the Blair Government swept to power on the mantra of “education, education, education” and the belief in the power of education technology to transform. EdTech went on to enjoy significant amounts of thinking and money, which included a new quango called Becta (the British Educational Communications and Technology Agency) to help steer policy into practice.

There had been some form of agency looking at educational technology since the original National Council of Education Technology was established in 1967, by the Department of Education and Science. NCET continued as an advisory body through shifts in name, policy direction, new projects and amalgamations until 1997, when the incoming Labour government decided it needed something more closely aligned to government education policy.

For over a decade activity blossomed: things like the National Grid for Learning and large procurement programmes saw technology ramped up across education. Serious effort was put into researching what worked, and publishing the findings.

By working with other agencies, such as the National College and the Teacher Training Agency, Becta helped ensure that essential professional development accompanied this technology growth. Indeed it steered funding towards a multitude of initiatives and projects through a wide range of partner organisations that met its criteria for driving the education technology agenda.

Reliance on market forces has seen the collapse of many excellent organisations

Projects such as the Self-Review Framework, which still supports schools, were developed through collaboration of many organisations, and achieved a consensus for a robust framework that all could support. As someone who was involved, I can confirm that these were heady and optimistic days.

Sadly, all this progress was not to last. An incoming Tory government had warned of cuts to come, through what was known, though not affectionately, as the “bonfire of the quangos”. Becta was one of the first against the wall, though it did go out in a blaze of glory with the Home Access Programme, one of the most efficient and effective education technology initiatives I have witnessed.

Since then… nothing. Reliance on market forces has seen the gradual collapse of many excellent organisations which helped education grapple with the logistics and pedagogies of education technology, including several of the regional broadband consortia. Brave spirits have organised strategic initiatives, such as ETAG (the Education Technology Advisory Group) and FELTAG (for Further Education), but their work has largely been ignored.

The only obvious recent policy has been to leave education technology to market forces: a thousand flowers bloom, only to wither. There’s no sense of direction or coherence, no economies of scale, and no procurement leverage. In one laughable pig-in-a-poke procurement exercise set up by the DfE, it bought iPads at a price a schools could beat just by visiting Amazon.

Lots of wonderful things are happening in the EdTech sector, including various excellent startups, and organisations like BESA that are doing their best from the industry side. But with a UK market that’s too small to support the investment model that venture capital seeks, everything seems an uphill struggle. There is little sign of research informing practice, nor of practitioners in the EdTech space, whether developers or teachers, getting the scale of support needed to gain widespread classroom traction.

We cast envious eyes across the Atlantic. In a domain where once we were the international leader, other countries have overtaken us. I have never been a great advocate for central control, but in this situation should we bring back Becta, as some now demand? And if not, what else would get us back to the international forefront of digital pedagogy, and equity back into English classrooms?

Tony Parkin is an education technologist