Schools should embrace the power of tech, says Hague

Posted: 9th June 2023

Ministers need to set up a vaccine-style task force to speed up the integration of technology in education, Lord Hague of Richmond has said.

The former leader of the Conservative Party said that the government was moving too slowly to react to “the most transformative moment in education since the printing press” and that too much money had been spent on HS2 and not enough on developing artificial intelligence computing in Britain.

“Every time I talked to ministers, I said, ‘You don’t need to change course. You just need to go faster’, because the whole world is speeding up,” he said.

When asked how this could happen, he added: “Going faster in government tends to involve a task force, a public-private sector approach. The vaccine task force was a classic example during Covid, which in this country broke all the normal rules. Not the traditional Treasury business case, which means you take two years to analyse something before you decide to go ahead with it. Take a number of risks, experiment with things, those are all characteristics.

“This field requires a lot of experimentation. And so it needs that and to be driven to some extent from the top of government to do that, because that makes the whole bureaucracy respond to it. So it is a task-force approach, which the government are increasingly using in other areas. So now they really need to bring it to technology, education.”

He challenged both main parties to come up with bigger ideas on education in the next general election to move away from the usual debates on student loans “and whether we should have a few more grammar schools or not”.

Hague was speaking on a panel at the The Times & Sunday Times Education Summit with Priya Lakhani, founder of Century Tech and a member of the AI Council. She said that the slow speed of technology take-up in schools was down to funding. “What paralyses us here is that even if something is really cheap, the school will say, ‘I love this but I don’t know if I can fund the 5 per cent increase in staff salaries, because that’s not been agreed yet by various members in government and therefore I can’t spend a penny on anything else’.”

Hague agreed that resources had been misallocated by governments. “We might wonder in a few years whether it was right to spend £100 billion on a new railway [HS2], and £1 billion on a new supercomputer to help AI. We might wonder in ten years’ time whether our priorities were right.”

Asked whether the Department for Education or the government understood the lack of resources in schools, Hague replied: “Probably the answer is ‘no’ to your question. I’m not sure they do get the urgency and scale of what is needed.”

He conceded that this needed to be addressed across government, but while the spend on science research and development has gone up, education needs to keep pace with it. He said: “We are entering the fastest age of technological transformation in the history of human civilisation by some distance over the next term. Once you add quantum computing to AI, [and] all the energy transition going on, there will be no successful economic or health strategy without that. So actually, I think there is a very good case for saying yes, you know, moving resources. I would basically spend a lot less on building railways and a lot more [on education] . . . make that hard decision.”

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