My twentieth BETT-some reflections.

I was there when Charles Clark announced the introduction of Interactive White Board funding (minus cash for associated teacher training). I saw the launch and demise of the Government’s educational ICT agency BECTA. I jumped for joy when the Laptop for Teachers and the Home Access to Technology projects were launched (I was working for Toshiba).

I enjoyed the heady days of the Building Schools for the Future programme and I remember when Michael Gove announced the ‘reform’ of the ICT National curriculum. But the rest of the ministerial speeches and announcements have passed me by not only because they said so little, but also that these politicians appeared to have little idea about the meaning of the weasel words from their speechwriters.  

As someone once said of a Ministerial BETT speech “was like listening to a three year old reciting Shakespeare”. Such is the standing of politicians at BETT. There was a time when a BETT ministerial address was not to be missed.  No longer.  You wouldn’t cross the road for one, never mind brave the crowded Tube or DLR to get to ExCeL  .

I have fond memories of the cramped and crumbling environment at Olympia, the growing international audience, the move to ExCeL with its exorbitant hotel prices, the crappy wifi in the early days, the BETT awards and the growth of the parallel Education World Forum and influx of education Ministers from around the world.

There was a time when England was seen as THE world leader in the use of educational technology for teaching, learning and assessment and other countries were anxious to come visit, look, listen and learn. We had a national “Harnessing Technology” strategy, a National Agency, BECTA, ring fenced funding for ICT and a regional network of support within local authorities, broadband consortia as well as several membership communities of practice.

Sadly those days have gone and will not be coming back.

Credit to the owners (several in my 20 years) and organisers of BETT who, throughout all those years and changes have tried to maintain a commitment to learning and the sharing of knowledge and experience of teachers and learners at the heart of BETT.

But it has been a challenge to balance the profit and pedagogical tightrope of this glitzy extravaganza. There was some concern in the last few years that most of the big presentation slots were going to sponsors who had the biggest budgets and slickest PR set ups. There was also concern that the cost of the stands was becoming prohibitive especially to the small start-ups, one-person bands, membership and voluntary organisations and education charities..

The emergence of the BETT Futures zone and projects like EDUCATE has been refreshing. However the big boys still dominate and one edtech name is reported to have paid £250K for its presence this year - and they do not sell anything. I suppose it’s not surprising in these days of venture capitalists BETT organisers who keep their financial accounts in the Cayman Islands .

Another trend, which has been worrying, is the cavernous spaces taken by education ministries of oil-rich Middle Eastern countries. These are big empty spaces not designed  to share knowledge of edtech, but purely to recruit teachers from UK and Europe. This year new stands from China and Russia also made an appearance.

This is undoubtedly profitable for BETT but surely something of a mission drift from the original aim and purpose of the show?

One thing that has evolved over the years has been the quality and diversity of the freebies. Gone are the days when a pen and a dip into a box of Quality street would attract the attention of crowds.  Companies have also learned to be a bit more sophisticated in their engagement strategies but it is always amusing to walk around the show in the half hour before it opens to see the organised warm-up sessions to energise the T-shirted troubadours employed to smile and establish eye contact and suck you on to their stands. And it is always funny to see them compete for who is going to have the biggest brightest stand and loudest PA system.

Some things never change.

One of the consistent themes of the last 20 years has been the passion of teachers and their desire to learn from each other as well as the companies selling stuff. They are hungry to hear about how they could improve teaching, learning and assessment using technology.

And to their credit the organisers have realised that this is the pumping heart of the show and the seminar sessions in the Schools, SEND and  Post 16 Theatres, which I was privileged to host, were as rich and lively as they have ever been. The days were full of back-to-back sessions where teachers from across the globe shared what had worked for them and were willing to share that with others - for free, even though some of  their efforts were then sponsored!

In Olympia the seminars always felt like a bit of a side show, an add-on and a platform for politicians to sound like they were not only interested in what was going on but that they were going to do something about it. Some did but most didn’t, especially now!

Although this year Damian Hinds did announce a very modest £10m investment   innovation fund(modest in comparison to the overall BETT spend)  some EdTech roadshows by BESA and a LendEd scheme where schools can trial technology products before they buy. That may be being a tad optimistic given schools are struggling to cope with budget cuts which limits their ability to keep things going let alone invest in new kit or workforce skills. Still all journeys start with small steps

One of the benefits of the move to ExCel  is that the learning is in the heart of the show. In fact the main BETT arena is the epicentre of the hall and the heart of the show.

The other constant and heartbeat of BETT is the friendships, networks, communities and personal contacts that have grown over the years despite the domination of the money people.

The disconnect between UK policy makers and those educators and industry people who understand that technology alone can never change learning and teaching – that pedagogy is the key – has grown. So much so that some business leaders have a far better grasp of what is required than our own education ministers. That would have been unthinkable 10 years ago.

Yes BETT IS a trade show where companies want to sell you stuff - but to think it is only that is to miss the point. It is the people who make BETT, not the salespeople necessarily but the educators from across the globe who want to learn and share their understanding of what needs to change and how technology can help.

It is for that reason I have already got 22nd-25th January in my diary for my 21st BETT. Will I see you there?