‘Endless tech’ at schools has been a failure, says Sophie Winkleman


Private schools are recruiting digital tsars to help them embed artificial intelligence into their teaching through tools such as “personal AI tutors” for pupils.

So-called “edtech” products are “simply not proven yet”, Winkleman said. “In fact, results and progress have been descending since they’ve been in use. I believe that’s why exams are now going online, because schools can’t bear to say, ‘OK, this hasn’t worked’. So education advisors are lowering the rigour expected in exams to match falling levels.”

A Unesco report on technology in education last year found there was “little robust evidence on digital technology’s added value to education”. 

In the UK, 7 per cent of education technology companies had conducted randomised controlled trials, while only 12 per cent had used third-party certification. Unesco noted that a great deal of evidence on technology education comes from those trying to sell it.

Winkleman cited research by Prof John Jerrim of University College London which found that pupils tend to do worse in reading, maths and science assessments when they are completed on a computer, compared with on paper. Other academics have found that when people read on a screen, they tend to skim more than when reading from a book.

Last year, ministers in Sweden announced plans to reverse an earlier move by the government to make digital devices mandatory in pre-schools after children’s reading test scores fell between 2016 and 2021. 

“There’s clear scientific evidence that digital tools impair rather than enhance student learning,” said Sweden’s Karolinska Institute, a world-renowned medical university.

‘This digital thing is a mistake’

Winkleman said that while she accepts that a small number of digital tools could aid learning, the UK should follow Sweden in largely returning to books, pen and paper. “They’ve done it in Sweden – they’ve said, OK, this digital thing has cost us beyond fortunes but it’s a mistake.” 

She said that some head teachers who “went for tech in a big way, thinking they were being quite Silicon Valley” will not yet accept that tech in classrooms hasn’t transformed pupil outcomes.

Winkleman studied English Literature at the University of Cambridge and has appeared in the Channel 4 comedy Peep Show, ITV period drama Sanditon and the recent Wonka film. She has two daughters – Maud, 10, and Isabella, eight – who she has moved to different schools twice to get them away from iPads in classrooms. 

“I was quite a lone voice in the classroom then, saying I don’t want them to be given iPads, even if you’re being really generous, please don’t,” she said. “So I just trotted around trying to find fairly traditional schools nearby. But the schools I visited around the country, where tech is used in serious moderation, are so visibly much more successful and happy and effective than the schools who’ve gone full on tech.”


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