The following post features on our new educational hub, hosted by TES, packed with tips and resources designed to improve your school processes. We’ve pulled together the opinions and expertise of senior leaders on how technology can both inform and transform school processes to facilitate the difficult business of school management. In the following article explores the work of Tom Rees - Headteacher of Simon de Senlis Primary, a Microsoft Showcase School in Northampton - who has developed a digital strategy across his school, and the wider Northampton Primary Academy Trust.
To see how Microsoft Showcase Schools use technology as part of their overall digital strategies, register to attend a free Microsoft in the Classroom event hosted by one of our Microsoft Training Academies.
Tom Rees, Headteacher of Simon de Senlis Primary School in Northampton, a Microsoft Showcase School, is responsible for digital strategy across a seven-school primary academy trust. However, he is less evangelical about the wonders of technology than you might expect.
That’s because Rees is convinced that what matters most is learning. He’ll tell you that software and devices are of value only if they facilitate how a school operates and, in turn, support teachers and learners in their core task of making classroom practice more effective.
“We’ve learned to be reflective in our use of technology across our trust schools and specific about exactly where it has an impact on making school processes and learning better,’’ Rees says.
“Reflective” here includes considerable study of published research, as well as studies carried out in-house, always with a view to revealing impact and value.
“That’s why, these days, we are using a smaller, carefully selected range of digital tools really effectively, where they can have the most impact on children’s outcomes,” Rees adds.
Building from the bottom up
When Rees took over as Headteacher of Simon de Senlis in 2012, the school was facing several financial challenges, and had also received a “requires improvement” rating from Ofsted.
“We had an ageing IT suite, staff laptops on their way out and the Wi-Fi was flaky,” Rees says. “There was so much to do with technology alongside more urgent priorities in the classroom and elsewhere in the school.”
He was experienced enough to know that if technology was to support the necessary changes, the starting point had to be with the infrastructure – reliable broadband, Wi-Fi and school networks. These necessary and often expensive steps can be missed by schools impatient for a digital revolution.
“Schools where the drive for multiple devices outruns the capacity of the infrastructure put the commitment of staff at risk... There are few things more frustrating than a member of staff collating important data or a teacher planning great lessons only to get hijacked by technical problems. Addressing these practical issues is just as important as having great ideas about teaching and learning with technology.”
The right tools for the job
After the infrastructure came the planning – still, you’ll notice, ahead of the shiny boxes.
“We set out a digital strategy aimed at identifying how and where technology could transform communication and collaboration, enabling staff to be better at their jobs and generating a positive impact on our internal processes and on classroom practice,” Rees says.
“This focused on areas where planning time could be reduced using Microsoft collaborative applications such as OneNote and Outlook, alongside classroom tools such as Sway and OneNote, to enhance children’s learning in the classroom and at home.”
As time went on, and technology – cloud computing in particular – became more widely available and classroom-friendly, Rees, true to his principles, built a lean, learning-focused digital strategy around two essential elements.
One is Microsoft’s cloud-learning environment Office 365, which enables teachers and learners to communicate with each other and collaborate on tasks. The other is a high ratio of Windows 10 devices, which children use effectively across the curriculum.
In 2014, when Simon de Senlis joined the Northampton Primary Academy Trust, Rees became a director of the trust and began developing a digital strategy across all seven schools.
“That’s where you can really see the power of technology for collaboration in what is an increasingly complex organisation – heads and teachers keeping organised and having access to information; working collaboratively on planning, sharing documents or feeding back through surveys. Some of the cross-school working parties now use Skype meetings to supplement face-to-face contact,” Rees says.
Providing CPD across the trust is equally vital; here, the schools are helped by the Microsoft Innovative Educator (MIE) programme, a network of teacher-experts who share best practice with their peers. The trust’s commitment to the MIE Experts scheme ensures that there are teachers across the trust who can provide advice and support to colleagues.
Teachers also make use of the Microsoft Educator Community (MEC), which makes a wealth of support and training from across the world available online.
‘Learning first, shiny boxes later’
Rees’ philosophy – which could be summarised as “learning first, shiny boxes later” – is very much on show at Simon de Senlis. That said, the devices are certainly also visible. Some 1,200 Windows 10 devices and other tablets have been carefully chosen and deployed across the trust, all managed by a single technical support group. Although the vast majority of devices are Windows-based, other tablets and laptops can be used effectively because Office 365 is available on any internet-enabled computer, laptop or tablet.
What we see at Simon de Senlis, and increasingly in its partner primaries, is a great example of how technology, appropriately used, can ease administration, planning, leadership and communication. Most important of all is the potential to bring increased effectiveness to how the school functions and value to children’s learning.