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The schools using technology to personalise learning

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“We don’t group students by the Septembers they were born between, we group them by the level of their ability,” says Gary Spracklen.

Spracklen is headteacher of one of four schools that make up the Isle of Portland Aldridge Community Academy (IPACA), located off the coast of Dorset. The academy opened in 2012, and offers all-through schooling to its local community. Children start in nursery aged 2 and remain until 19, making IPACA function almost like a multi-academy trust but as a single entity.

But perhaps what sets it apart the most from other mainstream schools is that it operates a “stage not age” approach to learning, rather than rigid year groups.

“We have examples of Year 5 pupils who have passed their statutory assessments for key stage 2 because they were ready. We have a Year 8 student who is working with A-level students in her English literature class, because she has a deeper understanding of English literature and her performance is more in line with pupils several years older.

“We look at every child as an individual, and give them a personalised approach,” he adds.

Light-bulb moments

How they offer that personalised approach is by seamlessly utilising technology. “Technology for us is very much like electricity,” says Gary Spracklen. “It’s just there. We don’t spend a lot of time thinking about it, we just get on and use it.”

The approach begins right at the start of a child’s education, and enables tech to be embedded in the school just like the electricity Spracklen refers to, rather than as a novelty that gets in the way of learning.

To do this, the school uses cloud-based Google Apps for Education. The browser-based, cloud infrastructure enables IPACA to give its 1,200 students and the teaching staff access to their own files instantly. Initially, this meant that the students were each given 1:1 computers in the shape of Google Chromebooks but IPACA has now moved to what it calls a “UYOD” system. It is a play on the ever- expanding BYOD (bring your own device) approach, but students are expected to do more than just bring their devices to school with them; they need to know how to “use” them.

“We have an agnostic approach to technology,” Spracklen says. “Our students can pick up any device and start working because it’s all browser-based. All this is made much easier by being an all-through school as you can embed it early on.”

Problems shared

The cloud infrastructure has also had a dramatic impact on teacher workload, something that has dominated the educational landscape in terms of policymaking over the past few years.

“Working in the cloud supports collaboration, so it reduces workload massively,” Spracklen says.

“I can easily assist teachers with their lesson plans because they can share them with me in real time and much more fluidly than they would on a normal, flat network infrastructure.

“Teachers can share best practice throughout the academy and add comments using the comment feature,” he adds. “That is a really positive approach because collaboration has to lie at the heart of reducing workload.”

The changes have led to sustained increases in standards and educational achievement at the school, particularly at key stages 1 and 2. IPACA has delivered the best GCSE results the community has ever seen, but it is still battling the challenging circumstances that come with being a school in a deprived coastal town.

Recent changes to GCSEs by the government have meant the school hasn’t seen year on year improvements in exam results but it expects to be back on track in the coming years. “What we are doing is laying the foundations for independent learners who are going to succeed in key stage 4,” Spracklen says. “We’re confident about our programme over the next five years that we will be producing some outstanding students.” The almost-island, linked to the mainland by a strip of land poking out from the south coast, is not somewhere one would expect to find the cutting edge of educational innovation.

Coastal towns are often the areas that are hardest to reach, both physically and educationally, but IPACA has reimagined its approach to learning to become one of the most interesting schools in the country.

‘Instant feedback’

Similar improvements have been witnessed at Tring School in Hertfordshire, thanks to the improved communication and feedback that can be delivered through appropriate use of technology.

Like, IPACA, Tring implemented cloud-based learning in the form of Google Apps for Education. Chris Lickfold, director of learning at Tring, says the changes have transformed the way teachers deliver their lessons, while changing students’ learning habits.

“Teachers can give instant feedback on students’ work, and the platform ensures students can easily collaborate, and eliminates delays caused by work being left at home or lost,” Lickfold says. “And if a student has a question they can have a dialogue with the teacher within the document at any point.”The changes have meant “results have improved significantly”, he adds.

“Students’ expected progress in science, for example, has improved by 20 per cent, and their better-than-expected progress has increased by 21 per cent compared with previous cohorts.”

Teachers are able to gain real insights into how long a piece of work has taken, when it was carried out and how it was constructed.

“This means teacher support is far better targeted,” Lickfold says. “It also means we can personalise work to suit the student far better, with students being able to work at their pace on different tasks.”

Michael Hickey is an education writer

Find out about the wealth of Google for Education tools available to aid your classroom practice here.