Brave new world

Last week The TES Magazine looked at the digital divide between teachers and pupils. This week, Steven Hastings visits the schools that top Microsoft's list of innovators
28th November 2008, 12:00am
Steven Hastings


Brave new world

The managing director looks at the latest edit of the TV advertisement. The team in the recording studio has done a first-rate job. But what will the Dutch office make of this? He'll send it over to them, then set up a web conference for this afternoon, once he's had the chance to put a few key phrases through the translation software. Best run it past the US branch, too, when Pennsylvania wakes up.

This isn't a multinational business deal - this is an enterprise project at Broadclyst Community Primary School in Devon, where pupils have used the school's cutting-edge ICT facilities to take their companies multinational, working with partner schools in Holland and America. Broadclyst is one of only four UK schools to have been branded an "Innovative School" by Microsoft, the software giant - a worldwide initiative to encourage economic and community development through education.

Peter Hicks, Broadclyst's headteacher, believes that technology plays a central role in achieving this goal. "We're moving towards a fully global economy, so academic qualifications no longer guarantee success," he says. "Today's children will trade on their human capital, their ability to collaborate with other people around the globe. It's technology that will help them learn those social skills."

Technology and social skills in the same sentence? In the early days of computers, the IT whizz was the nerd, the geek, the loner. Glued to the screen, blinking in the dark. But then IT became ICT. And today, the schools that hit the right notes, such as Broadclyst, are the ones that focus on that middle C. "Communication is everything," says Peter. "Children here are in constant contact with each other, through technology. It's no longer: `So and so is good at maths, let's resent her for it.' Instead it's: `She's good at maths, so let's get her to help.' We have social cohesion."

Peter was quick to see that technology could help personalise children's learning. But he didn't want 30 children in a room, each working at their own computer, at their own pace, following their own scheme of work. That's not the Broadclyst way. Instead, children's needs are assessed - using ICT, of course - so they can be placed into groups with other children with similar needs. Each group then works collaboratively on appropriate tasks.

And parents can join in by helping out with work. Children at Broadclyst don't have home and school work; they just have work. Through the school's online Learning Gateway, children can access what they've been doing in class and carry on at home. Next day, they pick it up again in school. Continuous learning. Home-school learning. Call it what you will, it's been a great way to get parents involved: Jonathan Bishop, deputy head, says that children and parents often email each other during the school day to keep the collaboration going.

Aside from the advantages of parental involvement, social cohesion and personalised learning, Broadclyst's ICT agenda also has a wow factor. The school's lecture theatre has wall-to-wall projector screens and tiered banks of computer monitors. It's even been compared to mission control at Cape Kennedy.

When the school invited a heart surgeon to lecture, children watched him perform a dissection right in front of them. But at the same time, they could follow three different camera angles on giant projection screens, while their individual monitors allowed them to zoom in at will. Surround- sound commentary topped things off.

Nearly 300 kilometres further north, at Shireland Collegiate Academy in Sandwell, is another of Microsoft's Innovative Schools, along with New Line Learning Federation in Kent and Bowring Community Sports College in Knowsley (see panels on page 28). And while Broadclyst and Shireland are different - one's an urban secondary in multicultural West Midlands, the other a village primary in rural Devon - there are remarkable similarities in the impact technology has had on both.

As at Broadclyst, the biggest boon at Shireland has been getting everyone to work together. The Learning Gateway developed at Shireland is one of education's success stories, with 30 secondary and 90 primary schools subscribing to the model and paying Shireland Learning Ltd for the right to use the customised package. Pupils can access and share work online, create "my site" pages, explore multimedia resources and get advice through the problem page.

Sir Mark is passionate about getting the whole Sandwell community on-board and online. "You can't sit around complaining about the digital divide, you have to get out there and do something about it."

Doing something about it has meant putting 1,600 computers into the local community. Just recently, Shireland spent Pounds 25,000 on 70 computers for local community centres, libraries and places of worship, as well as training in how to use them. All it asks is that local families can use these drop-ins to access the Learning Gateway.

Other heads who visit Shireland - and more than a 100 a year do - often long to do something similar but find finance a barrier. "They say that," says Sir Mark, "But it's about how you choose to spend your money. It can go on a flashy prospectus or special events: we think this is more worthwhile. If each of those 70 computers touches just five families, then that's 350 families with access to technology and the Learning Portal. That's not a bad return."

At the heart of these Learning Gateway collaborations between pupils, parents and communities are the subject teachers who partner ICT specialists to create accessible and imaginative learning materials. When inspiration strikes, staff turn their ideas into a storyboard, passing them on to Shireland's team of content designers who convert them into online activities.

But how do staff at Shireland find time to come up with these ideas? They recycle the time that technology saves elsewhere. About 500 homeworks a week are marked by computer, and nearly all school administration is automated, with the system handling everything from staff requests for training to pupils' GCSE choices. All key documents are available online. "We do everything possible to cut the workload," says Sir Mark.

"In return, we ask that staff recycle that time and use it to develop new resources, or mentor children."

Neither school leader is hung up on results. They aim to give pupils the skills needed to thrive in the 21st century. Even so, as levels of engagement have gone up, so have attendance rates and exam grades.

At Shireland, the number of pupils getting five A to C passes at GCSE is rising, up from 24 per cent in 1997 to 61 per cent last year, and the attendance rate of 92 per cent is among the best in the country for the type of community it serves. More astonishing is the story at George Salter Collegiate Academy, the other school where Mark Grundy is executive principal. When he became involved there in 2003, Sir Mark immediately implemented the ICT-based learning system developed at Shireland, and the five A to C GCSE pass rate has leapt from 14 per cent to 85 per cent.

At Broadclyst, Peter Hicks puts the impact of ICT into more human terms. "We had one boy come here from another school. He was disaffected, disengaged. His parents were despondent and didn't know what to do. But after a few weeks at Broadclyst, he began to take an interest in learning. It was as if he couldn't help but learn. His mother rang me and said: `Thanks - you've given us back our son.'"

The message seems clear enough: a commitment to technology motivates pupils, makes life easier for teachers, and can send results soaring. But for schools wanting to follow their example, Broadclyst and Shireland sound a note of caution. "People want me to tell them that putting 100 PCs in their school will solve all its problems," says Sir Mark. "But it doesn't work like that. ICT won't in itself change a school. But as a vehicle for change, it's unbeatable."

At Broadclyst, Jonathan Bishop agrees. "The challenge is to decide what you want learning to look like and what sort of curriculum you want. Sticking the computers on the end is the easy bit."

With technology moving forward quickly, teachers becoming more skilled, and schools getting more adventurous, Sir Mark feels we've reached a tipping point, where the kind of high-tech environment seen at the Innovative Schools will become standard. But while some schools are playing catch-up, others will still be forging ahead. What developments can we expect to see in coming years?

Sir Mark thinks shared access to data and parental involvement will be continuing themes, and says it won't be long before parents are able to log on and see exactly what their child is doing at any given moment. And in the short-term, Becta, the schools technology agency, identifies mobile technologies and social networking as two growing trends that schools have yet to exploit fully.

Looking further ahead, Dan Sutch, learning researcher at Futurelab, feels that we'll begin to question the purpose of the classroom, and see more learning happening outside school. Others feel it's only a matter of time before we ditch the model of one teacher to 30 pupils. "Why not one to 100?" asks Paul Hopkins, ICT consultant. "That would free up teachers to work intensively with small groups."

Several years ago, Dr Peter Twining of the Open University began research into what education of the future might look like, but found people so unwilling to embrace change that he almost gave up.

"It's probably better to start again, with a new model, focused less on the education of the individual and more on the advancement of the community," he says.

Then he had the idea of using the virtual reality world of Second Life to set up "Schome": Not School - Not Home. In Schome Park, learning happens informally, with people passing on areas of expertise. There's no longer the model of an expert and a group of non-experts. Pupils teach teachers, teachers teach pupils, and everyone enjoys equal status.

The key message is that education of the future will be about communication, collaboration and community learning. And it's not just a virtual reality - in some schools, this is already taking shape

The innovators

Bowring Community Sports College

Like Broadclyst and Shireland, Bowring Community Sports College in Knowsley has been chosen to represent the UK in a network of 12 schools worldwide chosen by Microsoft, all currently making the transition towards an ICT-driven curriculum.

Bowring benefits from input from Microsoft, which recently sent a team of consultants to the school and judged its work outstanding. Schools in the international network meet once a year - next year in Helsinki - and there are regular online conferences to share good practice.

One year into the two-year programme, Bowring is using technology to support a flexible timetable, where pupils learn in large blocks of time, doing cross-curricular projects, supported by staff from different subjects. "The traditional concept of planning a timetable in July for Year 7 pupils you've never met seems crazy," says Patrick O'Kane, Bowring's deputy. "This way we can adapt the timetable from week to week."

New Line Learning Federation

The New Line Learning Federation in Kent, another of Microsoft's Innovative Schools, is using ICT to underpin some radical new learning strategies. Instead of subject lessons, 14 to 16-year-old pupils work on long-term cross-curricular projects, which Jo Knight, director of e- learning says wouldn't be possible without the latest technology.

"Because we're doing something different, all our resources have to be developed in-house and shared on the Learning Platform. We hardly use text books - materials are more likely to come off the web." The two academies in the federation are developing newly-designed learning spaces - called Plazas - which are comfortable, flexible areas to work. Again, it's technology that allows the innovation to happen. "Every pupil in Years 7 and 8 has an ultra-mobile PC," says Jo. "With rows of desktops, it's hard to be flexible, but with mobile devices children can get together in pairs and groups."

- In January, Microsoft announces a new list of Innovative Schools. Other schools can benefit from the scheme by signing up at to get access to resources developed through the programme.

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