Education remains a topic of interest and debate at every level of society. This should be positive but much of what I hear from well-known commentators is thinly-disguised politics or an attempt to make news rather than report it with any semblance of fact, depth or balance.
Does this matter? Yes, I think so. Take two negative stories, one in SchoolsWeek and another in The Guardian, about a government programme to give low-cost laptops and internet access to children from disadvantaged backgrounds in England.
The initiative is being funded via England’s Department for Education (DfE) as part of the wider national government response to educational problems caused by Covid 19. Both articles criticise the programme for being inadequate and for the contract as a “commercial sham” that funnelled taxpayers money to a Tory donor’s company as payback for his personal financial support.
Starting with the latter accusation in SchoolsWeek, ComputerCentre, who were given the contract, were already on the government’s approved supplier list within the Crown Commercial Service Framework (CCSF). SchoolsWeek quote Private Eye as a key source in their article (with don’t provide a link) and neither seem to appreciate nor understand the complexities of government procurement or how the CCSF operates (for anyone interested you can read more here become-a-crown-commercial-service-supplier).
The second story in The Guardian was by my friend Laura McInerney, perhaps the foremost education commentator in the UK (ex-editor at SchoolsWeek and a Guardian education columnist) and co-founder of the edtech start-ups Teacher Tapp and Parent Ping (both owned by Education Intelligence Ltd).
Her column argues that the DfE and government’s actions ‘fell miserably short’ and links to an article written on the 7th June less than 12 weeks after the DfE’s contract with ComputerCentre was announced (in April).
Rather than the spin behind the stories in The Guardian, SchoolsWeek and also the TES, the facts are:
- A tender was not required legally as the chosen supplier was already pre-approved for this deal via the CCSF
- Other companies were approached who turned the deal down. How do I know? I spoke to the CEO of a high-profile education company (also an approved CCSF supplier) who turned down the opportunity as being almost impossible to source and, after allowing for background costs like warranties, logistics etc, the margins were “wafer thin” and came (for his experienced edtech business) with too high an opportunity cost
- Sir Philip Hulme, is a non-executive director at ComputerCentre, the firm he founded in 1981 and where he worked full time until 2001. That’s right – 19 years ago was when Tony Blair won his second term, when the first dot com bubble burst, when 99.9% of all internet access was via unreliable slow dial-up systems
- The Office of National Statistics (ONS) figures say that 96% of UK homes have internet access, up from 36% in 2001 (the ONS only started collecting these stats in 2005). This is robust accurate data unlike almost every source quoted in any stories about this program
- Sourcing 380,000 low-cost devices and a lesser number of dongles for internet access is actually a huge success story. Right now demand for these is running at about 100x the available supply globally. Why? Because almost every country in the world is seeing unprecedented demand for exactly these devices at a time when the manufacturing systems and logistics supply chains have experienced massive disruptions
- No story picked up that the number of devices supplied will be at least 480,000 after the government announced on Oct 1 that they would be buying a further 100,000
- Yes, some schools and students will have missed out or still be waiting. It’s estimated there are 540,000 students eligible for devices meaning 60,000 or 12.5% will miss out unless the programme expands. Clearly, communications about what the government is doing to fix logistics and supply issues to schools, as well as what is causing the shortfall and delays, must improve
- The complexity of why students have and many will continue to suffer educational disadvantage is not a single issue about a lack of devices but a complex problem with the practices of schools, teachers, edtech suppliers and even the BBC as factors. For example, school leaders have faced issues getting some staff to teach online because the School Teachers Pay & Conditions Document (known generically as the STPCD and set out in a document known as The Burgundy Book) does not require teachers to teach online . The Government is tackling this anomaly by focusing on the rights of students to learn rather than the HR focus of unions. It is publishing guidance (referred to as a Temporary Continuity Direction that comes into force on 22 Oct) that says, “schools have a duty to provide education to children at home, as they do when children are in the classroom.”
When I raised some of these concerns via Twitter, Laura’s reply was, in effect, ‘other people doing good things is not a reason not to do another very specific and good thing’, by which she seems to mean the DfE/government is still falling ‘miserably short’. In reality they’ve done well and hopefully will soon commit even more to ensure all the 540,000 students identified as lacking devices and access get them ASAP.
SchoolsWeek, Private Eye and the TES may hate that a Tory donor has a successful business that can get onto transparent public procurement systems at a time when this is the best sector for any smart supplier. They may not philosophically be able to accept any success that is less than perfect, but if there was any wrong doing then the police and other relevant bodies would be investigating and or prosecuting (which I don’t believe they are and if they do I am told will have 0% chance of success).
Laura was constrained by the 640 words The Guardian allowed her but by slanting her ‘evidence’ to suit her contention is a valid opinion piece but not objective journalism. Such fundamental differences seem to get short shrift at SchoolsWeek, Private Eye, TES, and The Guardian. They all should reflect upon some of the thinking that had the late Harold Evans chosen as ‘the greatest newspaper editor of all time’ (2002 poll of readers of the British Journalism Review and Press Gazette). Evans said, “In journalism it is simpler to sound off than it is to find out. It is more elegant to pontificate than it is to sweat.” Quite so.