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Barran: Our plan to help schools benefit from AI revolution

Like thousands of teachers, I’ve been very much looking forward to making my way to Stratford for the annual Bett show this week.

It’s a fabulous showcase for the very best ed tech in the world and I know many teachers go there to be inspired and find some cutting-edge solutions to doing their jobs more creatively.

As the minister responsible for AI in education, I have a special interest. Technology can help to deliver a world-class education, and I am particularly keen to understand how AI tools might be safely used to free up teacher workload, improve pupil attainment and close the disadvantage gap.

The challenge is to make sure the enormous potential of AI can be put to work in schools, while keeping children safe from its risks.

In the autumn we hosted our first ‘hackathon’, with Faculty AI and the National Institute of Teaching.

Teachers from Harris Federation, Star Academies, Outwood Grange Academies Trust and Inspiration Trust, children, computer scientists and software developers worked together to challenge ChatGPT and shape what AI can do in an education setting.

The event had real energy and excitement – a feeling of breaking knowledge frontiers.

Teachers told us that they were astonished at how quickly the AI developers were able to interpret their needs. If a first version wasn’t working, it was a matter of moments before the AI could be tweaked to deliver something that worked better.

We already know that teachers are exploring how they can make AI work for them. Last April 17 per cent of teachers said they had used GenAI to help them with their schoolwork. When asked the same question six months later, this number had jumped to 42 per cent.

Whatever breakthroughs we look for from technology, the most important thing is that we continue to build evidence of what it means in practice – not just the opportunities but the risks and pitfalls too.

Our report today on generative AI in education, following on from the publication of the results of our call for evidence on AI in education in November, which received more than 500 responses.

We canvassed the opinions of a whole range of experts for their views. One contributor said it reduced his grading time from six hours to 20 minutes. Can you imagine the knock-on effect if this kind of result was repeated across the board? 

The pandemic changed so much in how we use technology in schools. Teachers showed great agility in delivering lessons online. 

My department has doubled down to make sure that all schools have decent technology in place. We are investing in access to broadband for schools, and improving wifi in priority areas to meet our published standards – these programmes are going really well.

It makes such a difference to a school when teachers can work in more innovative ways, say to collaborate on a document in real time or when children can get on their laptops at the start of a lesson without a thankless battle to connect.

To this end, we are setting expectations for the level of technology infrastructure schools and colleges need and we’ve almost finished our first round of technology standards.

These will help leaders make sensible choices for their schools. It will enable them to pick the right laptops and tablets for instance and we’ve got new guidance about how to manage tech well.

We’ve also have published our standard on accessibility, which is so important for making sure everyone can access the information and tools they need for education at the right time.

AI is still in its infancy and we’re only seeing the beginnings of what the technology might enable.

If we make the right calls, the opportunities it offers us are endless – whether that’s helping students with personalised tutoring or giving teachers more time to focus on the areas they most enjoy, and have the greatest impact.

For the education sector to benefit safely from AI, we need the whole education community to be part of the conversation. 

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