I spent 5 days immersed in the Danish education system and I came back with one conclusion – IT in British schools is inefficient, costly, and ineffective.
Originally posted in 2015.
There are several stark differences between English and Danish schools. In Denmark students don’t wear a uniform, teaching is incredibly relaxed – there’s no government mandated curriculum – and schools have little apparent fear of risk. During “playtime” in Copenhagen’s equivalent of a middle school I saw a student sitting in basketball hoop 7 feet above a concrete playground, a boy of around 10 climbing in the rafters of bike sheds, and two 8 year old girls building a treehouse out of wood, rusty nails, and old milk crates. While all of these things may seem shocking in our health and safety obsessed world they are superficial and simply a reflection of Danish culture.
During “playtime” in Copenhagen’s equivalent of a middle school I saw a student sitting in basketball hoop 7 feet above a concrete playground
For someone like myself that finds the UK education system stifling my experience in Copenhagen was liberating, eye opening, and at some points even shocking.
In contrast to the liberalism of the Danish classroom, Copenhagen’s school IT management is structured, rigid, and most importantly, supported by government. For myself and many of my colleagues the words “Local Authority” send shivers down my spine. Whether it’s fair or not in the UK local government is a byword for inefficiency and bureaucracy.
Wielding the power of the public sector
I was lucky enough to visit the local government offices for the City of Copenhagen — the Danish equivalent of a UK local authority. What I saw there was a system of school IT management so efficient and cost effective that I left disgusted that we don’t have the equivalent in the UK.
In England schools can choose to manage IT themselves with in-house technicians, use an external support company, use local authority support, or anything in between. Each school makes their own decisions which provides great freedom of choice, but it also makes IT in UK schools hugely inefficient. Every school has different hardware, software, and services, most of which don’t transfer even between feeder schools. Expertise is unevenly distributed and often lead by people without knowledge of systems management.
In Copenhagen all purchasing and management is done through a hierarchy of management teams starting nationally and feeding all the way down to individual schools. That’s not a choice — it’s mandated by the government. In Denmark there is no impulse buying, if a school wants new laptops they have to wait until a bulk order is placed. The selection of hardware available is deliberately limited to allow the LA to provide the most effective support and discounts. If a school wants to buy a very specific laptop they can do, but they do it with the knowledge that support may be limited.
The schools of Copenhagen wield the power of the public sector like a hammer.
I was interested to see if this managed system affected creativity in the classroom. From my admittedly limited snapshot of Copenhagen it doesn’t seem to. What it does do is encourage forward planning and technology that is embedded into teaching. Before a school can buy new hardware they have to follow a process to show how the device or service will be built into lessons. The school has to nominate a teacher to undertake training to get the most out of their purchase. In return the LA provides adequate support and training to the school at no cost.
I’ve worked in education for 14 years, and throughout that time there have been repeated discussions about centralised systems at the local and national government levels, but none of this has come to fruition. If anything this type of centralise management is actively discouraged by the UK government at the highest levels unless schools are tied together in a business relationship.
In the UK the thinking is that market forces will drive down the prices of hardware, software, and services for schools. A school wants a set of laptops so HP and Dell compete for the order and the school benefits. But what actually happens is that monolithic companies are simply able to roll over schools without strong support like shooting fish in a techno-barrel. Probably with laser guns.
So while I might be able to buy a laptop at one price, the school down the road will get another. Yes, we can club together to get better pricing, but there’s no formal process for doing so, and even then two, three, or four schools still have nowhere near the power of the entire education system working together. In Denmark centralised procurement is mandated by the government. The schools of Copenhagen wield the power of the public sector like a hammer.
Copenhagen’s Pervasive Interaction Technology Lab
The Pervasive Interaction Technology Lab (PIT) manages IT for Copenhagens 64 schools. Everything is centralised — Active Directory, backups, server management, MDM control, internet access. Desktop images are pushed out from the PIT using Microsoft System Center, and redundancy exists at every level of the system. If the connection is lost between the PIT and a school local services take over and work continues as normal. When the connection is reestablished everything sync’s back up. But this efficiency doesn’t just show itself in the technology. All of Copenhagen’s 64 schools are supported by 3 administrators and 10 technicians.
The system so fast and efficient, that the entire IT system of a new school can be set up in just 3 days. Every school has the same BYOD network, the same administration network, and the students and teachers can move seamlessly between schools guaranteed that their tablet, laptop, or phone will automatically connect to a wireless network wherever they are.
Copenhagen’s system allows them to employ specialists in fields such as Active Directory, WAN technologies, and support services. In the PIT offices — which look like something from the set of Star Trek — a specialist sits in front of a minimum of 3 monitors managing their specific area.
What I saw in Denmark inspired and left me feeling disgusted at the state of local government in the UK.
Of course, business still has to be involved. An iPad can only be bought from Apple, a Dell laptop only from Dell, but Denmark understands its strengths and weaknesses. They know that if a single school approaches Apple they’re going to get a bad deal, but if the government asks Apple to provide 3000 iPads it’s a different story.
This might seem heavy handed, or even restrictive at first but it entirely resolves one of the biggest problems we have in UK schools. Too many schools have rushed out to buy the latest technology without understanding how to implement it or use it in the classroom. How many schools now have iPads sitting in a cupboard because they simply don’t know how to use them? How many heads have bought into iPads as a PR exercise rather than with a clear path to embed them into the curriculum?
If anything Copenhagen’s ICT management is the power of the public sector put to work to benefit students and teachers in all schools. Yes, there is a market, but it is tightly controlled by a group of educational specialists and consultants. Manufacturers go directly to this agency and their are no middlemen to take costs.
What I saw in Denmark both inspired me and left me feeling disgusted at the state of local government in the UK. For the last 20 years — but in particular since the financial crash in 2008 — local authorities in the UK have been gutted of funding and resources. Anyone who works in any public sector organisation knows this, but what the government has done to schools is particularly egregious.
Teacher resource centre
On the second day we visited Copenhagen’s Teacher Training and Resources Centre. What I saw there completely changed my thoughts on how state education should be run. We encourage our students to help each other, we share ideas with our colleagues, I help other schools with IT issues and they help me. But after visiting the TRC the concept of Sharing has never seemed so alien to me as when I arrived back in England last week.
It’s a beautifully simple idea. You take all the stuff that schools struggle to afford and dump it into a huge warehouse from which schools can borrow what they want at no cost. Books, science equipment, games, DVDs, software, even canoes. Where in the UK can a school can ring up, order 12 mountain bikes for a school trip, and have a van deliver them the next day. It’s such a basic concept, but in the UK we’re completely incapable of providing such a service.
But it’s not just physical teaching resources. They also provide free training, ICT consultancy, and curriculum advice. In one room there were rows of tables with all the latest computer hardware laid out. It looked like an Apple Store but alongside iPads and Macs there were Windows Surface tablets, Chromebooks, Android tablets and more. As we walked past row upon row of books, music, stuff I found myself getting increasingly angry that this place will never exist in the UK.
The Danish education system isn’t perfect — the problems voiced by teachers that I spoke to were eerily similar to those experienced by their UK colleges — there is concern about jobs, about government control of the curriculum, working hours and so on, but despite this there appears at all levels to be a consistent vision of using the public sector to the benefit of schools.
Centralised ICT consultancy
I set up ClassThink 2 years ago as a reaction to the lack of information available to schools about using iPads in the classroom. There are hundreds of companies out there providing this information, but I always had the feeling that this should be free. As a friend of mine said to me a few weeks ago, “sometimes you need a mug to get it started.”
ClassThink is my attempt to provide a tiny insignificant sliver of what Denmark does with the support of the government. Making resources free to schools makes sense from all but one point of view — the perspective of business. If your goal was to design a system which allows profit to be made out of schools, the UK one is well on the way to becoming that model, but I can guarantee it won’t benefit the education of students.
It’s no coincidence that the Danish government is recognised as the least corrupt in Europe. Transparency and accountability result in a high level of public satisfaction, and maybe this is the real root of the issue.