Government wants more tech in schools: Paying for it will be the first challenge

The UK wants to be at the forefront of the booming ed-tech industry, but schools are still struggling to provide essential services.

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The UK's tech sector has had a record year, outperforming all of its European counterparts for scale-up investments, and the government is determined to make sure that the country rides that wave of success – in as many fields of technology as possible.

Speaking at the Bett ed-tech conference in London, the minister for universities, science, research and innovation Chris Skidmore announced new measures designed to support the UK's ed-tech strategy, which was implemented a few months ago. 

"We will preserve our international leadership even as the UK leaves the EU next month," he said. "We will drive innovation forward in all fields, but especially in ed-tech."

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Skidmore said that £300,000 will be invested in trialing new assistive technology for students with special educational needs and disabilities in up to 100 schools and colleges. He also pledged to increase funding to bring better broadband connections to the "hundreds of schools" located in rural parts of the country. 

The minister added that the key area of investment in coming years would be the funding of the next generation of digital entrepreneurs. As an example, he pointed to the £80 million National Centre for Computing Education, which opened two years ago – the largest sum put forward by a government for a single computing education programme, according to the minister.

Skidmore mentioned further investments in digital tools in schools and universities, such as virtual assistants, educational games, or the use of virtual and augmented reality, as well as expanding the ed-tech demonstrator programme, which encourages institutions that are using technology effectively to share their expertise with other educational organisations. 

The public should expect cybersecurity, fintech, coding and other oriented fields in the education system to benefit with the aim of "creating an army of digital entrepreneurs", Skidmore said.

The UK's ed-tech strategy, launched last April, is a £10 million plan to support innovation in schools, colleges and universities across England. From reducing the burden of administrative processes to improving teaching processes, it identifies various areas where technology could make a difference. 

Geoff Barton, general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders, told ZDNet that he welcomes the government's support of the development of ed-tech in the classroom. "The minister has announced plans today to fund trials of assistive technology for pupils with special educational needs and disabilities and this is a good example of how it can help us in supporting the learning of vulnerable young people," he said.

Whatever the government's high tech aspirations, lack of funds is likely to be the biggest blocker.

"It is certainly the case, however, that there are huge financial pressures on schools because of the lack of sufficient overall funding by the government and we do not think that recent announcements about additional money for education go far enough," Barton added.

Since 2015, cuts in government funding have meant that schools across the country have been struggling to make ends meet. Last August, prime minister Boris Johnson promised £14 billion to boost schools over three years, but it was estimated that it would still not be enough to put an end to what is considered a "funding crisis".

The School Cuts, a coalition of six unions, said that despite the boost, four in five state schools in England will be worse off in 2020 than they were five years ago. 

In that context, Skidmore's pledge to bring high-tech into schools seems rather ambitious. It is hard to see how institutions struggling to meet staffing costs or to pay energy bills will be able to afford VR headsets or tablets anytime soon. And while smarter use of technology could improve efficiency, it's hard to see this being enough to bridge funding gaps.

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A recent survey by the National Literacy Trust found that, although a huge majority of teachers believe that technology should be made available across the curriculum to support literacy, a lack of investment in hardware, software and Wi-Fi was the greatest barrier to learning through ed-tech.

The same report found that under half of pupils had access to an iPad or a laptop, and two in five could use a desktop computer. Only 2.3% of the schools surveyed were able to provide VR headsets.  

What's more, as Skidmore highlighted himself, even if schools did gain access to hardware, it remains that many are still lacking access to faster connectivity. According to Ofcom, at least 500 schools in England struggle with slow connections to the building.

The UK's ed-tech strategy addresses this issue and stresses the government's pledge to deliver full-fibre connection on a national scale. But although the UK chancellor Sajid Javid recently announced a £5 billion investment towards rolling out gigabit-capable broadband, experts have agreed that change is not coming fast enough for the government's 2025 deadline.

The ed-tech sector is worth an estimated £170 million to the UK economy, and it is easy to see why it is in the nation's interest to sustain an industry that is ever-growing. The real challenge now is to ensure that every school reaps the benefits of innovation.