The government will scrap its flagship edtech demonstrator programme after just over two years, claiming it is no longer needed as schools reopen after Covid closures.
The Department for Education told Schools Week the programme would end after the summer term.
It was a key plank of the government’s 2019 edtech strategy, but was later repurposed to focus on Covid and education recovery.
Under the scheme, schools, colleges and academy trusts were appointed as “demonstrators” and funded with up to £200,000 to help other institutions harness education technology.
Initially run by the London Grid for Learning and Education Foundation, the £850,000 contract for the second phase was controversially handed to the United Church Schools Trust (UCST), the sponsor of United Learning, England’s largest academy trust.
Ministers recently extended the contract to July, but schools have now been told it will not be funded beyond the end of this academic year.
A DfE spokesperson said the programme had “provided important support during the pandemic, helping bridge the gap from crisis response to supporting longer-term use of technology”.
Use programme before it ends, schools urged
“We will be ending the programme after the summer term as schools have returned to in-person teaching, but we will continue to work with the sector to build on education staff’s existing digital skills.”
James Garnett, the director of IT at United Learning, told the Schools and Academies Show this week there would still be support through other non-government schemes, but urged schools to “make use of the programme” before the end of term.
“I’m not saying wait until September and then start calling me, but there are people out there, whether they are Google reference schools, Microsoft showcase schools, Apple distinguished schools, there are people out there who can give you advice and support.”
But one demonstrator warned that scrapping the programme represented a “missed opportunity”.
‘Missed opportunity and lack of vision’
The leader, who did not want to be named, said the scheme’s launch had marked a “long overdue renaissance at the DfE around the potential of technology and its role in education”.
“To see the programme end after only two years is very disappointing and represents, for me, the wider missed opportunity and lack of vision we’re again seeing at the DfE about how technology could be enhancing schools.”
Initially launched with just 20 demonstrator schools in April 2020, the programme grew quickly, and by the end of its first year involved 48 demonstrators.
Four schools and a college backed out at the start of phase two, leaving 43 demonstrators working with UCST. However, only 27 have been asked to stay on until July this year.
The government also recently announced funding allocations to cover the final four months of the scheme. Originally, £5.5 million was shared between demonstrators in the second phase, with grants ranging from £10,000 to £200,000.
Between now and July, grants for the remaining 27 schools will range from £5,000 to £60,000.
Edtech demo architect demands ‘more than kind words’
Ty Goddard, the chair of EdTech UK and co-founder of the Education Foundation, said the programme had become a “major response to the needs of England’s schools and colleges in early 2020, supporting thousands of institutions and staff teams”.
He paid tribute to the demonstrator schools and trusts, which he said were “not only running their own schools but were part of this educator-led pandemic response”.
The DfE “deserves credit” for investing in the original scheme, he said.
The scheme’s cancellation comes despite a recent government study finding that schools have “some distance to go” to make the best use of available technology. Ministers also recently launched a new set of digital and technology standards for schools.
But a DfE official acknowledged this week that the government needed to get better at drawing schools’ attention to guidance on education technology.
Sofia Costa, an edtech policy adviser at the department, said feedback from schools showed some “don’t know where to begin” when using technology. She admitted the government “has maybe not been the best at providing guidance to schools historically”.
Goddard warned the sector needed “more than warm words”, and said new standards without proper investment “won’t allow us to maximise the potential of edtech for the good of England’s education system”.
“This investment must not be allowed to go to waste, as we need a new fit for purpose edtech strategy that puts education technology, support for educators and the gains made at the heart of moving forward.”