Let them eat apps

Matthew Bennett

The Trussell Trust runs a network of over 400 food banks. Earlier this month, it reported that a spike in demand for its food parcels last summer was due to ‘holiday hunger’ among children entitled to free school meals. The all-party parliamentary group on hunger warned last year that as many as three million children are at risk of going hungry during the summer holidays.

This is further evidence of the effects of eight years of austerity on children in the UK. According to the TUC, the number of children growing up in poverty in working households will be one million higher this year than in 2010. The Equality and Human Rights Commission says that an additional one and a half million may be pushed into poverty by 2022. Children’s services have undergone savage cuts. Last November, a report from three children’s charities noted that council spending on early intervention services fell by 40 per cent between 2010 and 2016. The Sutton Trust said recently that as many as 1000 Sure Start centres may have closed since 2009 – twice as many as had been reported by the government.

But there is some good news, too. In a recent speech to the Resolution Foundation, setting out his ‘vision for boosting social mobility’, the education secretary, Damian Hinds, announced that ‘the gap in early years development’ has fallen by 14 per cent since 2010. Disadvantaged children may be hungry, but more of them are hitting their ‘early learning goals’ than ever before, catching up with their more privileged peers.

It’s true that we currently lack an objective measure of every four-year-old’s prospective life chances. Plans to introduce Reception year ‘baseline assessments’ were scrapped in 2016 after protests from teachers, parents and unions. But there will now be a single, standardised, computer-based test of literacy, numeracy and ‘self-regulation’ at age four. This new assessment of ‘school readiness’ will be developed by the National Foundation for Education Research, the only bidder left in the field after a rival company described the proposed test as ‘verging on the immoral’, and a third organisation refused to get involved (‘it’s absurd and ridiculous to test purely for accountability’). Alice Bradbury, of the Institute of Education, said that ‘you don’t need qualified teacher status to administer a computer test – a robot could deliver it.’ A new computerised times tables test for Year 4 pupils – pitched by the DfE as an ‘innovative use of technology in testing’ – is already being piloted.

 Bold Beginnings, Ofsted’s report on the Reception year, notes that New Labour’s early learning goals are no longer ‘aligned with the now-increased expectations of the National Curriculum’. The high-performing schools visited by Ofsted solve this problem by using ‘content from Year 1 National Curriculum programmes of study to plan and teach in Reception’, with lots of ‘direct teaching of reading, writing and mathematics’. They are already using standardised tests, rather than teacher observation, to assess pupils’ mastery of Year 1 NC content ; observation, they say, yields ‘only shallow and unnecessary information about a child’s achievements’. (As for learning through play, that was always based on much ‘too rosy and unrealistic a view of childhood’.) If these tests can be computerised too, so much the better. The DfE reckons that the ‘effective and evidence-based use of technology’ is the key to reducing teachers’ workload.

Hinds used his speech to the Resolution Foundation to broach the ‘last taboo in education policy’, the pre-school ‘home learning environment’. How can we close the attainment gaps which are already opening, slowly but inexorably, in our children’s pre-school lives? It’s a challenge for everyone, but especially for those of us in ‘businesses, the media, the voluntary sector and our tech industry’.

Now, we know that all of us live in two worlds now – the real one and the virtual one. It’s easy for kids and parents to spend a lot of our time looking at the screen – whether it’s our phones, our TVs, our laptops.

And we can derive huge benefits from this. Life is much faster, more convenient, more entertaining; but as we all know there are also downsides if we downgrade the benefits of the real world …

But are we also missing a trick here? If our phones and apps can help us bank, shop, diet, exercise and figure out where we are, why not also help us with helping our children develop their communication and reading?

The DfE will be ‘launching a competition to identify high quality apps’ that could be distributed free to ‘disadvantaged families’ – along with food parcels from the Trussell Trust, perhaps.

Shortly after talking to the Resolution Foundation, Hinds gave a speech to the World Education Forum on the need for ‘new technology to spearhead a classroom revolution’.

Melissa Benn said recently that the government was running out of ideas on education. I think they are pursuing a very definite agenda with great determination: privatising schools, and pushing ed tech into the newly privatised system. The fact that this was never in any manifesto, and is spun to the public as some kind of crusade for social justice – rhetoric that the Tory Party has in any case ordered its MPs to drop – doesn’t mean that there is no plan.


  • 30 August 2018 at 7:02pm
    John Cowan says:
    To address the point made in the first two paragraphs, New York City supplies free breakfasts and lunches throughout the summer to every child under 18. There is no reason why the UK should not do the same, at least in cities with high poverty rates. Security guards must still be paid throughout the summer, as there are many programs that operate out of schools, and it doesn't cost that much to provide the food itself and the cooks. Food is also provided at public pools, libraries, and food trucks.