How would you feel if you asked someone for support with your training & development needs but a third party was pro-actively blocking you from accessing this support?
That’s exactly what I discovered was happening for some schools; at first I couldn’t believe that it was true. When I dug a little deeper, I uncovered some darker truths.
While teachers across the UK are getting to grips with the new Computing curriculum, I find myself in the lucky position of being able to provide support and assistance to teachers new to Computing and Computer Science. It’s wonderful to be part of this friendly, supportive community.
I’ve observed many members of this community support each other through social media and online forums, Twitter, Facebook groups and the Computing At School community forum. While face-to-face meetings and hands-on CPD may have the deepest impact when supporting teacher development, these are not always available due to geographical or budgetary constraints, so online support can be a next-best alternative.
With the support of my employers I’ve been experimenting with a new model of CPD delivery that means I can currently offer training events in UK schools for free. As I write this post, I’m traveling on the train to such an event in London but there’s an interesting ‘back story’ that I’d like to share.
Late in September, I started offering free CPD to teachers, hosted in their schools. One teacher in a school just north of London contacted me via Facebook instant message asking me for more details. I sent him an email explaining how the free CPD model would work – except he never received the email. A day later he asked me to send it again and I did. This subsequent email never arrived either. I suggested he look in his spam/junk folder – but he had already looked and it was not there. It was only after I sent him another message, this time from my personal email account rather than my work email that he received the message straight away. When I then tried emailing his colleague from my work email account those messages also disappeared without trace. I thought it bizarre that I never received any mail rejection notices as I sometimes receive from my personal email address – in fact, when I asked one of my technical colleagues to help me look deeper into the problem, it appeared as though the emails were in fact being delivered successfully. It seemed that somewhere between me sending them and the teacher receiving them, they disappeared into a ‘black hole’ and nobody could explain why.
Determined to discover why my emails were not getting through, I did some more checks, including emailing teachers in other London schools. I discovered that only those schools which were customers of LGfL (London Grid for Learning) and used LGfL for their email service did not receive the emails. I did a little more reading online to try to learn more about LGfL and why they might act in this way. I read through reports published at Companies House and those of companies connected to LGfL. All this made for very interesting reading. LGfL are a not-for profit trust with about 10 employees, however the companies actually providing the technical services: Atomwide and Virgin Media Business are both for-profits. If you’re fond of conspiracy theories, I suggest you do a little background reading for yourself and see what you discover, especially when you start looking at salaries, bonuses and cash assets and look at TRUSTnet too.
There were some clear indisputable facts backed up by evidence I’d obtained which suggested that schools were being pressured into signing up for expensive 5 year long contracts when one year contracts offering much better value were also available. The evidence was damning; it showed that LGfL were using anti-competitive practices to prevent schools shopping around for the best deals. Quite aside from the higher costs – it would seem to me that schools signing up for another 5 year deal would not have the same bargaining or negotiating powers once they had signed up, if the service did not meet their expectations.
In the end, I contacted BBC Technology Correspondent Rory Cellan-Jones. On October 27th this story [ http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/technology-34636317 ] made the BBC News with a feature on BBC London evening news, Radio 2 news bulletins and the Radio 4 Today programme. Then on October 29th, there was a follow up article [ http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/technology-34666086 ]. Both of these stories hit the news during half-term, so it’s possible that schools did not see them.
As part of their defence, LGfL said that they had only blocked emails from Exa Networks that were classified as spam to protect their schools, defining spam as unsolicited emails sent in bulk. This argument might have made some sense, if they had dealt with email from an Exa account like all other spam, eg. putting them in the ’Spam’ folder/digest. However, the two emails that I sent to one teacher completely disappeared never to be seen again in spam, junk etc. and these emails were sent before LGfL claim they put the block in place.
Disclaimer: I am employed by Exa Networks, the company referred to in the BBC report. Exa is a competitor of LGfL, Atomwide, TRUSTnet and Virgin Media Business. Exa Education [ http://exa.education/ ]