School in a Box Reception – House of Commons, 29th February 2012

On 29th February, Microsoft were at the House of Commons, Westminster for the School in a Box Reception hosted by Reading MP Rob Wilson. The event provided a high profile opportunity for schools and Microsoft Partners to show how they are working together to provide high quality, flexible and scalable low cost technologies to support leadership, administration and even more importantly, classroom learning.

Gerald Haigh, independent writer for Microsoft, went along on Wednesday to find out how School in a Box is moving along in education and how cloud computing is transforming already the way ICT works for education.


The tone of the gathering was firmly set, after an upbeat introduction from Rob Wilson, speaker Dan Moynihan, CEO of the Harris Federation, of 13 schools, eventually growing to 25 began by describing the remarkable record achieved in short order by schools within the Federation. You can read it on the school site here.

In his talk, Dan outlined a philosophy of ‘High expectations, matched with decisive action,’ and a belief that every child can achieve.

‘The ICT has to facilitate that, no excuses. It has to work every time, and it’s part of our uncompromising approach to quality.’

The Federation’s mission is to take on underperforming schools and turn them round. This involves dealing with some schools where ICT provision is poor, and not well managed.

The solution in a nutshell, is to provide a central, cloud-based solution ‘HarrisNET’ for the whole Federation.

‘It’s our own Cloud. We developed it ourselves, we host it and run it. We store data and learning content, accessible from anywhere.’

There’s extensive use of Microsoft technologies including Windows 7 at the desktops, Server 2008 providing a single Active Directory for all the Academies, Exchange 2010 also serving all the Academies and Sharepoint 2010 which is branded as HarrisNET. Together they form the Cloud and provide the ability to run Office 365 which uses SharePoint to provide Cloud storage.

As new academies join the Federation, ICT provision is set up for them remotely in the cloud to be rolled out on site. Dan contrasts that with an older style of ICT provision which may have involved designing a new network for each academy, with separate attention to software and hardware, at at typical cost of £1450 per pupil – say £1.7million per school.

‘We wondered why we needed to spend all that money, when we could provide a better solution with a cloud system. How we did it now is something we call Academy in a Box.’

It’s not, though, he emphasises, ‘one size fits all’.

‘We tailor it to the site, but avoid having different solutions for the same problem. We manage it centrally and there’s less support needed locally,’

This then is a centrally designed and hosted solution which is also flexible enough for each Academy to have its individual approach, response to community needs and appropriate teaching and learning style. Efficient, lean, ready-to-go and reliable, it’s a very cost effective way of provisioning any school  be it new, refurbished, updated or whatever with the ICT that it needs to achieve its own particular vision. That cost saving element is highly significant.

‘We’ve gone from £1.7 million per school to £500,000 per school. Across the group our savings are £2m per annum on ICT alone.’

(The change in licensing costs with the advent of EES last March was of great benefit here. It actually made the Cloud investment financially possible )

‘Most importantly’, says Dan, ‘everything works.’

‘We hit the ground running when a school opens. Our Principals are guaranteed a working solution… safe and secure, enabling all users to access files and software and applications in the cloud when and where they need them. ’

Above all, Dan feels there is the assurance of change and improvement for the young people…..learning and teaching is the guiding force.

Also at show at the House of Commons was some of the work Microsoft and their Partners have been doing with newly opening Free Schools. European Electronique  were on hand, with some of the students from West London Free School.  They were quick to tell me how pleased they were with their Office 365  and its ‘anytime, anywhere’ accessibility. European Electronique claims this as “One of the first Microsoft Office 365 deployments in Britain’s schools.”

(EE’s own case study of the West London Free School deployment is at )

One universal cost benefit of Cloud is the much reduced need for on-site support. I saw the ultimate example of this when I met Tania Sidney-Roberts, Principal of The Free School Norwich , a new primary for 168 children, opened in September 2011.

Tania, her staff and children enjoy a full and efficient service of ICT for learning, management and administration  but with no servers around, and so nobody has to be around to look after them. Everything comes as a cloud service from Microsoft Partner Civica.

Tania Sidney-Roberts claims not to be technically minded, but what’s more important is her depth of vision and experience when it comes to children’s learning. She is deeply committed to personalised learning of a style which will often take children beyond the walls of the school, and what she wanted at the new school was something easy to manage, easy to learn, and intelligible on the screen to a four year old child. When it came to the tender process, she sketched out her ideas on a few sheets of A4 and, she says, ‘Civica were the ones who immediately grasped what I was trying to do.’

The result is an attractive, child-friendly, easily navigable look, with colour, graphics with squirrels and a generally very comfortable primary school feel. And, as with the Harris schools, there’s anytime, anywhere access for parents, and, importantly, for the children on a range of mobile devices. (We’re told they routinely make use of the Wi-Fi at a Café on Cromer beach during their seashore studies.)

So driving everything is a suite of powerful Microsoft software  such as SharePoint 2010, Live @Edu, Office 365, delivered by Civica as a contracted cloud service.

(Civica also have their own case study of how they brought the Norwich Free School system into being within a two-month window)

Is it cost efficient for small schools to provision their ICT this way?

For me, to attempt that sort of comparison misses the point. I’d say that to produce an on-site server-based system from scratch at a new school, up and running on day one, would be prohibitive to the point where you simply wouldn’t attempt it.

I was going to say that I came away from the House of Commons with a sense that something really big is stirring again in our nation’s relatively short, but dizzyingly fast moving story of educational IT. The truth is, though, that it’s now beyond the stirring stage. Projects like HarrisNET and the work at Norwich Free School are already being found in other places  for example West London Free School. So what we have here is a pot that’s well and truly boiling. They’re great stories on School in a Box and Cloud Services, with lessons for all schools, of all types, in all places, and we’ll try to keep you up to speed with them.


More information can be found on the Microsoft Education SlideShare 

 School in a Box

Baby Steps to the Cloud

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