The outside looking in

31st March 2006 at 01:00
Gerald Haigh visits a school where the ICTMark was piloted and finds out how it benefited from the external assessment

Right at the start of the relationship between computers and schools a quarter of a century or more ago, the feeling among teachers, heads, and governors could be summed up as: "We're aware this is going to be hugely important, but we're not sure why."

The feeling of uncertainty is still around, though the up-to-date version might be, "We think we're doing OK with ICT, but frankly we don't know. And if we're being really honest, we aren't even sure what 'doing well' looks like." That, at the simplest level, is a justification for Becta's new ICT Mark - an externally accredited recognition of a school's overall performance in embedding ICT across the curriculum.

Gavin Hawkins, ICT co-ordinator at Stow Heath, a 300-pupil primary in Wolverhampton, one of the schools which piloted the ICT Mark, sees it as a helpful benchmark in an area where there can be uncertainty. "In subjects like maths and English you can measure standards relatively easily," he says. "You can't do it so easily with a subject like ICT, and it's good to have that external assessment."

The reason for the difficulty is the fact that the more successful a school is at the "embedding" process - at Stow Heath, for example, there are no longer any timetabled ICT lessons - the harder it becomes to measure ICT performance separately.

The ICT Mark starts from the forthcoming Becta Self-Review Framework, which provides a detailed online tool for self-assessment in ICT throughout the school. Across the eight elements of the tool (each element is broken down into sections) there are five levels. For the purpose of the mark, the crucial level is four. It is at this level, says Philippa Lee of Becta, who was largely responsible for developing the SRF, that a school is displaying "coherence" in its approach to ICT. That's to say as well as having a good strategy in place, there's a shared sense of purpose - an inclusive vision understood and adopted across all aspects of the school's life.

In order to be awarded the mark a school currently has to show level four performance in most aspects of the framework (there are a couple of areas where level three is for the moment acceptable: "extended learning", for example, where clearly most schools have some way to go.) At Stow Heath, Gavin and head Jean Edge began the ICT Mark process by gathering together a strategy team - head, deputy, ICT co-ordinator, assessment co-ordinator and one other teacher. Together they went through the framework using their own judgment and knowledge to place the school against the system of levels. Using that as a starting point, they then set about gathering the evidence that would confirm or question their initial assessment. Along the way they were supported by visits from a Becta-appointed adviser.

Gavin likens the process to the way Ofsted makes judgments. That's to say it's about practice rather than policies and intentions. "It's about making sure that learning happens across the curriculum. And not just in the classroom, but in the offices and in strategic planning. Any school that's been through Ofsted will know the sort of thing that's required - examples of pupils' work, evidence of ICT being used for tracking pupil data for assessment and target setting, pupil self-assessment, evidence from the records of lesson observations."

Everyone at Stow Heath had some input, including pupils, who were given a self-assessment grid of their own, with statements such as as "I know where I am in my e-learning and what I need to do to improve my ICT skills". All of this evidence, gleaned from different areas of the school's work, was placed digitally in a special file on the school network to which Becta's ICT Mark external assessor had access.

Stow Heath's commitment to ICT is very visible - there's the by now familiar array of interactive whiteboards and a very well equipped and up-to-date computer suite. The school's also enthusiastic about the 200 PDAs (personal digital assistants) - part of a Wolverhampton authority initiative - which give pupils access to the web at school and at home, and also link wirelessly to the school's whiteboards.

It's a fundamental principle of the ICT Mark, though, that it's not there to reward levels of equipment. Philippa Lee says: "It's not about ICT, it's about whole-school improvement through ICT. So we're not interested in questions about whether they have whiteboards or projectors. We don't mention particular applications or solutions."

What does matter is the vision of what ICT can do for learning and motivation - and here's where Stow Heath scores, for their level of belief in what ICT can do for children is clear to see. "The aim is to give pupils independence and confidence," says Gavin.

It's significant that Gavin has just a 50 per cent class commitment and is able to spend the rest of his time developing ICT across the school.

Specialist staff deployment on this scale represents a big budget chunk for a primary school, and is an act of faith by governors who have clearly bought into the enthusiasm and expertise of their staff.

"If you want the outcomes, you have to do it," says Jean Edge.


* At Bett 2005, secretary of state Ruth Kelly announced that Becta would develop the existing Naace Mark, already awarded to 578 schools, into the national ICT Mark which launches this spring. The is timely because many Naace Mark schools are coming up for their three-year review. The ICT Mark will be revisited at three-year intervals, and it's assumed that expectations will rise.

* The ICTMark can provide a focus, in a sense a target, for the SRF.

* Pilot schools report that external expert involvement, such as an adviser during the process or an assessor at the end, is supportive and helpful.

* Award of the mark is evidence of good practice that a school can show to Ofsted, parents and local authority.

* At least one pilot school finds that the mark attracts attention from software developers and ICT agencies who wish to work with schools on ICT development.

* Evidence gathering is essential, but pilot schools report that where good monitoring and record-keeping is already in place, the task is not onerous.

Much of what's needed already exists.

* Pilot schools' message is to take time and, perhaps, look at one aspect at at time.

* Should you start focusing on weaker aspects of ICT or on the strengths? Pilot schools feel there are arguments each way, but it's important and interesting to have discussion.

* The starting point is for a smallish team to do the initial "pencilled-in" assessment of the levels. After that, include as many groups as possible, including pupils.

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