Select Committee on Education and Skills Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 20-36)



Jeff Ennis

  20. This is really a supplementary to the Chairman's line of questioning. During the presentation, Mr Wurzburg, you said there were two models of mechanism. One is like the Individual Learning Account countries like the UK and Canada have adopted, and the other is replacement earnings, to use your expression, which Sweden and Germany are majoring on. Going back to the dead weight factor that the Chairman referred to in terms of people who do not take up this form of education anyway, have we seen any variation in the dead weight factor in the two types of model?
  (Mr Wurzburg) I do not think we have. It is too early to say. But I do have a word of warning. In so far as we are using things like the tax system as a mechanism for the public sector contribution, certainly there has been experience in the United States with the Hope scholarship fund, which was put in place in the last Clinton administration, which relies very heavily on the tax mechanism and gives people essentially tax deductions for some of their higher education expenditure as well as for different forms of lifelong learning. The problem is that the more you earn, the more beneficial it is. The higher your marginal tax rate, the bigger your tax deduction. Some evaluations of that would suggest a very perverse redistributive effect. Essentially, the public subsidy is very much skewed in the direction of people with higher incomes, because they benefit more; they have the bigger tax deductions. If you do not pay taxes, it does not do you any good.

  21. One of the things with lifelong learning is to try and get first footers, as we call them, on to the first rung of the ladder. Are there any models that have been more successful in targeting this group of people, which obviously appears to be the most difficult group to reach?
  (Mr Wurzburg) Getting away from the financing mechanisms, we did an exercise last year for education ministers where we compared how countries were doing on lifelong learning. We used a whole basket of measures. We looked at adult participation, and the Nordics come out extremely well on this. They have high proportions of very poorly qualified people who participate in various forms of training. We also have an activity that some colleagues have been working on, a thematic review of adult learning. They go into considerably more detail. In the case of Sweden, for example, they have several different approaches. Some of them are rather structured forms of education, people going into higher education. They also have study circles, which are basically very small, informal groups, supported by the Ministry of Education. Individuals get together if they want to learn how to do something and they develop their curriculum with support from the Education Ministry and maybe some financial support. It is a non-threatening kind of setting. The Nordics also set up language programmes for immigrants who do not speak the language, and sometimes it is a condition for receiving public assistance.

  22. It appears to me that you are drawing a direct correlation between success rates in targeting these people and outreach centres.
  (Mr Wurzburg) The outreach centres are absolutely essential. It is a way of finding out what your clients really need. But there is a diversity of offerings as well. In a way, it is similar to what we talked about with schoolingl. If you want to keep young people on longer, you have to cater to their diverse needs.

Mr Shaw

  23. In the Medway Towns, where I come from, in the south-east of England, we campaigned for a long time to improve the infrastructure, and we got a tunnel under the River Medway. Then we had to campaign to get the roads to join up to the tunnel to make it work. We have that now and it is happening. That is an analogy with the issue of computers and infrastructure. We are spending lots of money putting computers into schools and into public buildings, but I want to ask you about infrastructure and broadband. How important is the roll-out of broadband? What are the consequences for the UK economy and other countries? Will that happen anyway? Will it be a necessity? What are the consequences for those in the slow lane?
  (Mr Istance) I think the broadband developments are of significance in terms of what is possible, but it very much hinges on the capacity, for example, in schools to be able to make full and imaginative use of the technology, and hence the yes and no answer earlier on. The technology by itself is interactive with everything else, but there has to be a capacity to use it and to use it imaginatively.

  24. Our Education Minister in answer to the Select Committee said the Government is aiming for all schools to have 2 megabytes, which to my understanding would operate about ten computers, which is hopeless in a secondary school. Would you agree?
  (Mr Wurzburg) The number of computers now in schools in the UK, according to my understanding, is ten students per computer.

  25. What about the economic consequences for countries in the slow lane? We in the UK have left it to market forces, and BT have now slashed their price for broadband, so it could be argued that from now individuals and public institutions are able to afford to connect to broadband, whereas in other countries, such as France, there is a lot of public money being invested to ensure that public services have that capability. What do you think are the economic consequences of waiting for market forces to dictate rather than saying, "We know this is something that our country needs and we are going to make that investment"?
  (Mr Istance) I think it is an important economic investment, and I think it is a very long-term investment. In terms of building up the capacity of the country to be digitally literate and to be able to use technology as part of advanced skills of all kinds, the ability to learn as a tool for learning is a very important economic as well as educational and social objective.


  26. On the question of trying to change the educational culture of a society, we have seen Individual Learning Accounts spread all over the place, and people are trying to do fengshui and plumbing and all sorts of things which are not actually allowed. Should not any country wanting to change educational culture say, "What we must go for is digital skills" and put all the money into the basket of ICT training? Is it not that level of priority if you really want to change the educational culture of the UK or any other country? You have to say, "Let's stop mucking around with a whole range of bits and pieces. Let's go for ICT skills and put the investment there." Would you favour that?
  (Mr Wurzburg) No, because I think we have seen what has happened in the past. Which ICT skills are you going to go with? What kind of providers are you going to rely on? Are you going to run the risk that a number of organisations, including OECD, have had, when we relied on a provider to help us set up our websites and everything and they went out of business? A single strategy is probably a little bit wrong-headed. We have a directorate that examines the issues you have raised (directorate for science, technology, and industry). I am not competent to talk about some of the macro-economic effects of relying on the markets to expand capacity and lower cost, but I think there is another issue. We have been playing around with this idea of trying to increase ICT presence in schools for a number of years, and we had a ministerial meeting last year, after we had an ICT forum talking about putting students in front of computers and so on.

  27. That is too much time with ministers and not enough with real politicians!
  (Mr Wurzburg) The US minister could not make it, and sent one of his assistants, who in fact came from the Houston school district and actually has seen some students. She said the issue of ICT in schools is not an issue of putting it in front of the students; it is an issue first of putting it in front of the teachers. It is not a matter of making the teachers competent and confident in teaching software to the students. This is an issue which we are taking up in some work that we are doing on teachers. Teaching is supposed to be a knowledge occupation. These are first knowledge workers, but they are one of the last professionals to actually start their working day by turning on a computer. Most teachers do not have computers on their desks. Students have them on their desks, so the students can share them, but the teachers are not using the computer consistently as part of their management of collecting and passing on information, analysing student results and so on. I do not care if students never see a computer in the classroom because they can get that at home. There is a limit to how much the school can overcome the disadvantages of having or not having them at home. If prices come down, they will be able to get them at home as well.

  28. Ten years ago I was responsible for organising a conference, and someone sitting where you are, an IT entrepreneur, said, "When you go into a school what you have to do is change the culture, and the way in which to do that is to make sure that everyone in the school, from the dinner ladies to the lollipop person who sees pupils across the road, even the Head, is IT-literate, and until you get them all together learning, you do not change the culture." You are saying the same, are you not?
  (Mr Wurzburg) We have started a new activity looking at teachers and that is one of the themes. It was not one of the initial issues, but it has worked its way in as one of the themes that is going to be examined.

Ms Munn

  29. Referring back to what we were talking about in the last session, we have this traditional model in lots of places, not just in the UK, about how learning is delivered, about how schools are, about that whole environment. Is not one of the key issues about this whole digital divide that that is very stable and everybody knows how to recognise a school, etc, yet IT by its very nature moves all the time? We were talking over breakfast about how France perhaps at the time thought, "We have got to go with this, so we will give everybody a Minitel, it is in their houses, and they will get used to it," but what happened was that technology moved on, so it was completely useless. We have had situations in Britain where in education people have been given to go out and buy some computers. You do not buy a computer once now. As soon as you have bought your computer, it is out of date. There is this huge clash with the fact that IT by its very nature, sometimes unhelpfully, in terms of you have to buy the newest model, is moving so quickly and our school systems are not. Is that not the fundamental problem and how do we deal with it?
  (Mr Istance) I think that is right. How do you change the culture of a school? The phrase was used just now, "even the Head Teacher", the word "even"; it should be "especially" the school principal because it is from the leadership that the ethos can derive. Of course, that does not mean to say it has to be a top down idea, but unless the senior management in the school are behind that change in culture, it will be very difficult. As Barry McGaw said earlier on, school architecture, school organisation, frequently is constrained within very traditional variables that do not necessarily lend themselves to the kind of flexible learning that ICT offers. The nature of teaching and assessment of students should be matched to ICT so that it is both rewarded that you can use ICT properly through your learning, and the way in which assessments and examinations are done uses ICT, and the system recognises that that is a fundamental way of learning but not as something apart, not as something that you do during the IT lesson, but as just a normal part of every day. I think that is what Greg was referring to in terms of the teaching profession; this is just a normal part of professional life, both for the teacher and for the student.
  (Mr Wurzburg) I think there may be a fundamental problem with the fact that ICT is always changing. You have to reconcile that notion with what has been over the last few hundred years a very stable model in teaching. Sometimes a school reform comes in and everyone works through the reform, and what they are working for is getting that reform in place, bedding it down, and getting on with teaching. In a sense, in so far as ICT is part of it, that is a kind of behaviour that is not consistent with ICT. It is a dynamic. It is always going on. You cannot lock the ICT technology in place. I think what it means is the education process becomes much more, to borrow a metaphor, a process of continual improvement in the classroom. Rather than dictating a teaching model, putting it in place and teaching that in the same way for 20 or 30 years, what we are talking about is a different kind of dynamic in the classroom.
  (Dr McGaw) I would just like to make a comment on the curriculum issues, because an issue for the schools in trying to deal with a computing environment was, do we need something that is uniquely education-oriented? That is how it began. Don Witzer invented a thing called Plato that was driven by a huge central computer with a very interesting graphics interface in the 1970s, and that disappeared, because that is not where the industry is investing. The education industry is not big enough to drive a market like that. I think the interesting question now for us is this: what computers can do in schools is on the one hand give students access to the internet, so it is a route to information that you cannot otherwise so readily access, but the second question is: what can you do in the school with the computing power of the machine? It is not now a question of what you are using it for to get out of the school or what you use it for within the school. You hear people saying, "We do not yet have enough really good educational software." But I think an interesting question is to what extent the kinds of software that everybody uses can be used educationally. What can we do with Excel spreadsheets, to teach modelling, to do a lot of maths for which others might be trying to invent special software? If we use the mainstream software for educational purposes, we can move as quickly as the field moves.

Valerie Davey

  30. I have two questions. First of all, the perception is that ICT is more user-friendly to boys than girls. I wonder whether that is true, or whether now at primary level we are beginning to see something different. Secondly, and this is a big question, I wonder whether ICT would not be the way forward for developing countries. Just as I missed out on a twin-tub and went straight from a boiler to an automatic washing machine, ought we perhaps in the developing countries to be looking at the way in which ICT will be user-friendly to both boys and girls out there, since it is two-thirds of the girls who are missing out?
  (Mr Istance) On the gender question, I think the data are showing, certainly data from the States, that there is actually very little difference in computer use in schools, at home to do homework between boys and girls. In terms of the proportions, the percentages are not very different at all. There is a question about confidence of use and there is a question of how adaptive different types of software are to boys and to girls. There is the question—and I think it is a very real question—of what use of ICT actually is and how ICT is being used. There is a great deal of evidence to show that boys use ICT a lot more to play. That can be seen as having its own value in terms of familiarity but it is not necessarily something that one would look to as being a key inequality to be bridged. In the work place women use ICT more than men. The question of the technology version I think is changing. On the second question, do I understand the question to be whether there is a possibility of using technology to leap-frog?

  31. Yes. I am tired of seeing out-of-date books being sent abroad. I know we do not do it in the same way as we used to send out-of-date books to East Africa or wherever. Surely there is a potential now of using this to leap-frog into a system, especially one with fewer teachers, is there not?
  (Mr Istance) Fewer teachers, perhaps, though certainly the experience from OECD countries is that there is no way in which using ICT means you use fewer teachers or that it requires less support. In terms of the digital divide, the capacity to use ICT-based materials to address adult literacy for example, suggests quite a substantial need for support, for intermediaries and so on. So I am not sure that the saving is in terms of fewer teachers, more use of technology. But it is certainly an important route to follow that one can have access to just the same kinds of materials over the internet that are available anywhere else.

  32. I think the interesting point you made there was that you were talking about adults. For children in developing countries it may be that we will be startled by the capacity with which they might be able to use that.
  (Mr Istance) One of the points made during the Round Table was that the digital divide is in many respects an educational divide rather than a technological one, and also there was a reminder by several of the participants in relation to poorer countries that we should not necessarily be thinking of the most sophisticated equipment, but that ICTs of a fairly ordinary kind can be very important.


  33. I am looking at a speech by Douglas Alexander MP at a "Women & the IT Skills Gap" policy debate at the Fabian Society, where he said that 50 per cent of men claim to have used the internet compared to 40 per cent of women; women today make up on 21 per cent of computing graduates in the UK and only 15 per cent of engineering graduates in the UK are women; across the IT, telecoms and electronics sectors women account for only 9 per cent of the jobs whereas in the US the figure is significantly higher at 21 per cent. Is this a UK problem?
  (Mr Istance) No, but my answer was not in relation to those people who are specialising in IT as an advanced area of study. That area has traditionally been male-dominated. In the science areas male domination has become a lot less. In the technology areas there are still clear disparities, so I think that is a somewhat different issue.

  34. It was probably an unfair point. There is a quiet voice in the UK that says, "All this ICT thing is a fashion. You have to really go back to good old numeracy, literacy, basic skills, because without that you cannot open up ICT skills." The quiet voice says this is a trendy, fashionable aspect that is actually leading us away from good educational standards. What do you think about that argument?
  (Mr Istance) I think that is a very simplistic view.

  35. It is associated with a former Chief Inspector.
  (Mr Istance) I think there should not be a divide made between an educated, literate use of technology and all the other objectives of education. In fact, all the evidence shows the opposite. It is true that ICT is one and an increasingly important medium through which all the key objectives of education can be, among other methods, met. To be a young student today, whether it is in relation to questions to do with numeracy and literacy or culture, or participating in all sorts of exchanges, I think that is actually one of the most exciting and dynamic ways in which ICT is being used, for students to be communicating together, for teachers to be networking and so on, for ICT to be creating the kinds of environments whereby the main educational objectives can be met. I do not think one should see it as a fad, and I do not think the evidence suggests it is something that is going to go away.

  36. What would you say to people who criticise OECD for doing wonderful research, but does it really influence policy makers? Do you actually design the research effectively enough to make the choices easier for the policy makers? How good are you at delivering? Are we getting value for money? We are putting a lot of money into OECD.
  (Dr McGaw) With any research organisation the question is always how do you connect the research activity with the policy question? We have a major activity under way at the moment on knowledge management, which is a question for not just a place like this but for the major research organisations, for your Economic and Social Research Council, for your universities. I have only been here for three years. I ran an independent research agency before that. I think this place actually focuses its research on policy to an extent that few others do. The stuff that Greg is doing on mechanisms for financing learning is actually exposing options, and the consequences of various options, in a way that is not done in many other places. Policies do not flow directly. There were some questions about PISA. So we know that SES impact can be ameliorated, better in some places than others. What are they doing exactly that does that? This kind of international survey does not speak to that question, but it provokes that question. Countries used to say social background gives an advantage. Every country did its own analysis and learned that, and despaired about it. Now we can show them it is true that it has an impact in every country, but the impact is not the same in every country. That opens new policy possibilities in a way that you do not get without the kind of international analysis that can be done in a place like this.

  Chairman: I hope you do not mind me finishing on that note. It has been a splendid session. We have all learned a lot. Thank you very much. We have only scratched the surface, so obviously we will have to come back regularly.


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