Gillian Keegan launches set of technology standards for schools and colleges and speaks about AI in education

The Rt Hon Gillian Keegan MP

Mankind’s great light-bulb moments, especially the transformational ones, rely on someone turning inspiration into innovation.

Before becoming an MP, I spent almost 30 years in business and largely in tech, so it’s a real pleasure for me to be with you here today.

I spent many years in the financial sector, where among other things I worked on the development of digital payments, to power ecommerce and mcommerce – remember them.

And I got to see life-changing innovation in action.

Back then, when you bought a new TV you got out a simple, magstripe credit card; if you wanted to book a family holiday, you queued up at a travel agents.

I was part of a coalition of banks and mastercard that developed early digital payments using chip and pin technology which was a retail game changer at the time.

Like many in this room, I’ve seen some incredible tech transformations during my business career. I’ve seen innovation come to life and disrupt whole industries. And I’ve learnt many things along the journey.

First, you can’t innovate if you haven’t got the basics right;

Second, you need to know what problems you are solving and not cause new ones;

And third, what sounds far-fetched now will be commonplace in a couple of years. Tech moves fast.

These lessons have served me well, and I think we have a lot to learn in education, which has often lagged in tech adoption.

Let’s look at the basics.

Top of the list is connectivity. I almost said ‘obviously’. But I guess it can’t be that obvious if some schools are still battling glacial broadband speeds. Connectivity in schools, like everywhere, is a basic utility like water or electricity.

We are delivering on the pledge made last year to enable all schools to connect to gigabit broadband by 2025.

We’ve run the procurement for schools in the South West of England, and we’re working with schools across the North West, North East, and Yorkshire and Humber to get new fibre infrastructure.

We’re also upgrading school WiFi networks that don’t meet our connectivity standards in the 55 Local Authorities where school outcomes are the weakest.

We need to get the basics right.

Which brings me on to my second point.

I’m not the first Education Secretary to say that when it comes to tech, what schools need is stuff that just works, that solves a real problem.

Tech that doesn’t work is an expensive and potentially dangerous mistake, and it’s one that schools cannot afford to make.

That is why we are launching the latest set of technology standards. These will build on those published last year and will help schools to develop effective and safe strategies, including safeguarding pupils from potentially harmful and inappropriate material online.

In September we will also be launching a pilot service in Blackpool and Portsmouth, both priority education investment areas, that will help schools meet standards, make the best use of their technology and plan more effectively for the future.

We know for instance, that teachers still spend too much time on admin, lesson planning and marking.

I know there are brilliant products out there to help and many schools use them. With many of the best nominated at the Bett awards this evening.

I’m also glad to see so many innovative maths tools represented.

I want to make it easier for schools and colleges to know what works – so we need to see evidence about what your products can do in the real world.

Which brings me to my third and final point – the game changer.

Artificial Intelligence.

I know the education sector, like many, has had its fair share of false dawns when it comes to technology. In some places, really effective and integrated use of tech is making a difference already, but the tasks that really drive workload – things like planning, marking and giving 1-2-1 support to pupils – remain largely unchanged.

AI will have the power to transform a teacher’s day-to-day work. We’ve seen people using it to write lesson plans, and some interesting experiments around marking too.

Can it do those things now, to the standard we need? No. Should the time it saves ever come at the cost of the quality produced by a skilled teacher? Absolutely not.

But could we get to a point where the tasks that really drain teachers’ time are significantly reduced? I think we will.

Getting to that point is a journey we in this room can go on together – and just as we’ve responded to other innovations like the calculator and Google, we’ll use technology to deliver better outcomes for students.

We will empower you and support you to try things, to see what works, and you must do the same for each other, by working together.

We have kicked off that journey today by publishing a statement on the DfE’s website that says a bit more about the opportunities, as well as the risks, that AI brings to education.

I’m genuinely excited about driving this forward with sector experts including regulators, educators, researchers and the tech sector.

This is part of the government’s pro-innovation approach to AI regulation, as evidenced by our AI White Paper and the launch of a Foundation Model Taskforce, which will also consider UK domestic capability in this important technology.

My hope is that quite soon I’ll be able to tell you more about how we can establish a plan for getting the most out of AI in education, as well as protecting against the risks.

Tech is a tool, and it’s one that schools haven’t yet managed to get the most out of, but it can’t be the tail that wags the dog.

We have to look at others’ best practice – whether that be Estonia’s integrated education data, or South Korea’s exemplary leadership in AI transition. It is great to see so many of you from overseas here today to do that, and to have met some of you earlier. But we must also lead with our own best practice.

We’ve already done it in banking, we’ve already done it in travel. We’ve done it in retail, in music, in entertainment. We cannot wait a moment longer to do it in education. I know I’m preaching to the converted here and lots of you are already on this journey

There’s a great quote by the late Steve Jobs, who once said: “The people who are crazy enough to think they can change the world are the ones who do.” This is what great innovators do and I know this country’s schools, colleges and universities can be a beacon for innovation that will transform education.

Thank you.

Published 29 March 2023