Now that we are in England’s third Covid lockdown, you’d hope that we have a handle on things in K12 education in relation to content, exams and assessment, school attendance, and so on. Sadly, for most issues, the political and policy response has been chaotic, inconsistent or where big ticket (spending) programs have been devised, failing to deliver. The two most relevant examples I see are the £400m National Tutoring Programme and the BBC’s education output.
Happily, all is not gloom, with the success of Oak National Academy, perhaps the greatest international story of the global Covid-related education crisis. Last week, ONA had more than 250,000 concurrent users (during school hours) and was delivering over 40 years of video every day! Yes, ONA isn’t perfect or, as people keep telling me, ‘Not as good as a great teacher’, but here are the stark facts. ONA has, in under a year, built somethIng that has had more impact for <£6m than the combination of the BBC and almost the entire UK edtech community who in the last decade have had >£2bn of public and private investment. ONA are adding additional features in response to requests from schools and teachers (like assessment) but to keep it in perspective, ONA is a tiny startup charity within the UK’s large education ecosystem that includes behemoths like the BBC and Pearson PLC and successful small private companies like TWINKL.
As for the ‘edtech isn’t as good as a teacher’ argument, the reality is it will never be as good as a great teacher (⅓) but it probably is for bad teachers (⅓) and it’s a valuable adjunct for average teachers (⅓). Despite what unions, politicians and much of the media say, while the top third of teachers have always been the ‘4th emergency service’ I have yet to meet a parent, regardless of their own education, political views or socio-economic circumstances, who think that in any system of education (including private schools) their kids ever had teachers who didn’t fall into the ⅓ each great, average and bad model.
Another positive was the zero rating of internet access for families wanting to access ONA by UK internet providers BT O2, Three, EE, Virgin, Sky and Plusnet (but not Vodaphone.) Great news and even better the ONA’s team managed this complex technical implementation in under ten days. Compare that to the BBC, one of whose core Reithian remits is Education. Arguably for the vast amounts given to them by government and taxpayers they have been failing in education for many years on schemes like BBCjam, distorting the market (BBC bitesize) to ideas like ‘Open School’ (a K12 version of the Open University).
A current failure is the BBC’s inconsistency about how families can access the BBC’s education content (bitesize, Lockdown Learning, Celebrity Supply Teachers, CBeebies, etc). Like ONA, internet providers have zero-rated the BBC’s online education content but not access via TV, because to do that you need to valid TV Licence (£157.50). Yet TV (digital & terrestrial) is a massive distribution channel with nationwide almost 27m households having at least one TV (the average is 2.3). With 17% of students qualifying for free school meals, that means a huge opportunity is being lost in terms of getting the BBC’s content to them at home via devices that don’t require internet access. For families with a limited number of devices this would be a simple access multiplier to valuable educational resources and for the BBC Board and management it would create a positive story to build their case during the six years they will be negotiating their Charter renewal (due by Dec 2027).
As with all BBC broadcast and iPlayer material, the new education content will only be available to those who hold a valid TV licence.
Some families from low socio-economic backgrounds can’t afford a TV licence. Can they still use the shows on iPlayer and Red Button? We appreciate this is going to impact a small number of viewers, however the licence fee is what allows us to adapt and make this content available in the first place. All BBC online content – including everything on Bitesize Daily Lessons – is available without a licence fee.
Yet the ‘small number of viewers’ are the same audience targeted to receive £400m in tutoring via the NTP, as well as 1.4m low-cost devices and zero-rated internet access to ONA and the BBC’s online education content.
Maybe the BBC and government will change their mind if we could find a famous sportsperson to champion the campaign. However, how many celebrities or media luvvies will risk incurring the BBC’s ire or a chance on the long list for BBC Sports Personality of the Year 2021.