Do it yourself

  • 13th February 2024

Everybody’s talking about it, but governors must get a grip on artificial intelligence to be able to make decisions about it, as Durell Barnes reports


Independent school governors should be well informed about artificial intelligence to navigate the ever-evolving educational landscape effectively. First and foremost, they should understand the potential benefits of AI in education, including personalised learning, data analytics for student performance assessment, and administrative efficiency. Moreover, governors should grasp the ethical considerations surrounding AI, ensuring the responsible use of AI technologies and data privacy. It’s crucial for them to be aware of the latest developments and timeline in AI, as these can affect the curriculum and teaching methods, influencing decisions on technology investments. Lastly, independent school governors must be mindful of equity and inclusion, ensuring AI is used to bridge educational disparities and provide equal opportunities for all students. By staying informed about AI’s potential and pitfalls, they can shape a brighter and more equitable future for their schools.

Have a go

When I told a colleague that I was going to get ChatGPT to write the (above) introductory paragraph of this article, he (rightly) told me that that was “corny”. But it is the first time I have done such a thing and I learnt that within 30 seconds of briefing ChatGPT I had before me a convincing text, albeit not quite in my style (it might have taken another minute or so to craft that). I knew this could be done, but I hadn’t ever used AI to achieve in seconds something which might otherwise have taken me a great deal of time. So my first point is a simple one: governors should not just know what AI is and how it can be used, but know how they themselves could use it in their own lives.

I have sat in several rooms witnessing AI enthusiasts demonstrate how much can be achieved, how quickly, and how much refined, but too often to people who marvel at it largely through their own unfamiliarity – almost as if it were alchemy. Once people have an idea of how they might use AI themselves, they can appreciate better what its profound implications are.

Fast track

AI is developing at high speed. The transformation wrought by ICT occurred slowly in comparison and we can’t afford to ‘wait and see’. On the global stage, the UN secretary general, Antonio Guterres, launched his Advisory Body on Artificial Intelligence in October, speaking of AI as “an enabler and accelerator” for the world, able to predict and address crises and scale up the work of governments, stating that “the transformative potential of AI for good is difficult even to grasp”, although he warned also of the dangers of the “malicious use of AI”. This was on the same day that UK Prime Minister Rishi Sunak, launched the AI Safety Unit, telling his audience: “I genuinely believe that technologies like AI will bring a transformation as far-reaching as the industrial revolution, the coming of electricity, or the birth of the internet… But like those waves [of technology], it also brings new dangers and new fears.”

His speech echoed some of the conclusions of former PM Sir Tony Blair and former foreign secretary Lord Hague in their joint report, published in June this year, ‘A new national purpose: Innovation can power the future of Britain’, which urged the building of foundational AI-era infrastructure as part of a more strategic state and how we plan for the future. They stressed the importance of “retraining and lifelong learning, issues that will become of huge importance for future economic prosperity”, urging all political parties to address this with the “necessary speed and sense of priority, in a period of dramatic change and opportunity that has already begun”.

Educational eye

To some extent these national and global developments reflect what canny educationalists have been saying for some time. Sir Anthony Seldon, the prolific political biographer and current head of Epsom College, as long ago as 2018 in The Fourth Education Revolution (co-authored with Oladimaji Abideye) was urging educationalists to wise up to the likely consequences of AI for society, for humanity and the implications for education.

So if AI has not featured in the deliberations of your school board in the past year or so, it should have done and chairs should be looking to heads to ensure that it does this year. Many schools are commendably ahead in this area but if that is not the case in your school it’s important not to be left behind.

All change

AI is spoken of as the solution to teacher shortages, an aid to pupil and teacher wellbeing, something which can revolutionise assessment and administration in schools, bring about personalised learning, an end to school life punctuated by the physical movement of pupils at regular intervals to the sound of bells – and much more. And it is feared for all of those things, with profound implications for how we run schools and the role of the teacher in the digital age. And yet, even though they are going to be making key strategic decisions in this area, many governors don’t know exactly what AI is, unless they have had reason to come across it in their own lives, and many more don’t know how it might apply to schools in general and to their own school in particular.

Bright future?

The future is exciting but uncertain and the opportunities are equalled (in some eyes) by the risks. But if it is true that in education AI can offer better personalised assessment of pupil learning as a starting point, it’s difficult to understand why it is not more widely in use in schools. Some of this is linked to inexperience in ed tech, some to expense, some to teachers’ fears about the use of AI in teaching as well as learning.

The government has already indicated that it sees AI as key to resolving teacher workload issues in the announcement of the £2 million grant to Oak Academy to develop planning tools for teachers by using AI. As the education secretary Gillian Keegan said when announcing this: “Whether it’s drafting lesson plans or producing high-quality teaching resources, I am confident that by tapping into the benefits of AI we will be able to reduce teachers’ workloads so that they can focus on what they do best – teaching and supporting their pupils.”

If this is to become the norm in the state sector, independent schools will want to be ahead in this area, and the development of AI-led teacher resources offers individual and groups of schools (and arguably the whole sector) some brilliant opportunities to form independent/state school partnerships.

What governors need to do is to reassure themselves that someone in their senior team is leading thinking about this in the school, can give a clear account of what the school is and is not providing, what it is and is not aiming to provide in the future, what these are going to cost, and how they are going to take the school community with them in this area. As for any other area of strategic development, governors will want to see success criteria and progress milestones.

Al Kingsley, chief of NetSupport and a member of the DfE’s regional schools directorate advisory board for the East of England, who writes and speaks extensively about ed tech and governance, in My School Governance Handbook, quotes the co-host on his EdTech Shared podcast, Linda Parsons, who wrote: “Don’t start writing a digital strategy until you have tailored your school’s digital vision.”

I would go further and urge the creation of a digital communication plan. And schools which have embraced developments in this area most effectively have not only invested in technology but also extensively in ongoing training to ensure that staff are appropriately skilled to work confidently with AI, so you’ll want to know what the digital training plan is and what its continuing (not one-off) costs wilI be.

No school can embark on any of this until a plan is in place and has been costed and communicated. And it’s by no means certain that all schools will embark on this soon. But governors will be interested in the sense of direction and knowing what they can do to support developments. To do so, they need to understand what AI is and be, however amateur, users themselves.

Durell Barnes is head of governance for RSAcademics.

Durell Barnes

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