Inspired by American mentors, heads in Northern Ireland are finding that palmtop technology has a manifest impact on school leadership. John Anderson talked to them
The ability to build excellent relationships is the key to improving school leadership. So says Mark Standley, an associate principal and consultant from Anchorage, Alaska, and faculty member at the summer conference Building Learning Communities, held in Boston in 2003.
For the assembled heads from across Northern Ireland, these were unusual sentiments in a session dedicated to technology.
Some of those present were part of a programme for new heads run annually by Northern Ireland's Regional Training Unit (RTU). Others were representing education technology prizewinning schools in the province - but they had all converged on Boston to share international perspectives on school leadership and ICT and education.
It was not till near the end of the seminar that Standley laid bare the device that could help meet the myriad needs of overworked headteachers.
Roy McCelland, principal of Kells and Connor primary in Ballymena, recalls:
"Mark talked about what we do, how tasks interface at many levels, and how we need access to a constant wealth of information if we are to be effective."
In the follow-up meeting Byron Evans, the unit's ICT adviser, was pleased to find the heads demanding that he run a local pilot scheme to trial palmtop technology (HP iPAQs).
And so it came to pass - thanks to a collaborative effort by the RTU and its partners: C2k, the technology service for schools in the province; Hewlett Packard; and the emPowering Schools strategy, part of the Northern Ireland Department's eLearning Partnership.
McCelland says: "The networked PC on my desk has become terminal. I could be tied to it daily and never get along the corridors to see how staff and pupils are performing. But with Mark's approach, it was, 'Job needs first, then stick in the technology.' I was hooked."
Johnny Graham, principal of Belfast Model girls' school, agrees that technology should help school managers to become more mobile, not less.
"As a manager who feels uncomfortable and isolated in an office environment, I envisage a situation in which I can be highly visible and interactive, with information at my fingertips. This way 'management by walking about' can become less of a theory and more of a reality."
Graham likes the idea that effective management stems from good relationships with staff, pupils, parents and others in the community - and the "personal digital assistant" helps to free up precious extra time to interact with people.
Sharon Bell, a senior teacher at Harmony Hill primary in Lisburn, County Antrim, says: "I already used a basic palmtop for my diary and contacts, but I felt that, with newer technology, classroom responsibilities and management could be better balanced."
As Standley predicted, all the heads came to see the device as a must in face-to-face meetings and learned to use it sensitively. One head, Michael Madine from St Mary's primary in Annalong, County Down, says taking notes when talking to people is useful but it is better to listen, then log the details later.
McCelland agrees: "The handheld should be used discreetly after a conversation to note outcomes or follow-up," he says. "The Outlook diary has appointment reminders with audible or visual prompts.
"Notes attached to these appointments or contact details can be accessed easily in a face-to-face meeting. They can be reminders to follow up problems weeks after an incident."
Graham found it useful to "note maintenance concerns and health and safety issues", while for Ms Bell having details to hand when colleagues ask for contacts is particularly empowering. "I feel more efficient, and it helps to build professional relationships," she says.
McCelland adds: "Several taps of the stylus take me from an appointment prompt, to a phone number, to a series of notes made during the last conversation - all information at hand, in the hand."
For Madine, the palmtop has had a major impact on his problem-solving skills as well as his working relationships.
"With all parent phone numbers on the digital assistant, and my mobile phone at my side, it doesn't matter where I am," he says. "I also found it useful to keep birthdays - for the staff and all 79 children. They look amazed and pleased when you acknowledge them."
McCelland also found that access to information around the office became much easier, and data synchronised with his PC via a desktop cradle guarantees that vital information never gets lost. He is also impressed by the sheer scope of the palmtop.
"I have to hand edits drafted for the next school development plan, notes from parent contacts and tasks for tomorrow," he says. "I hold contact details for sales reps and maintenance contractors and have notes on prices and details that I can extract at the start of the next phone call."
Of course, the heads found that to get good management value you have to invest time to input all your useful information in the first place. But the benefits soon became self-evident.
McCelland says: "I assemble information as far-ranging as substitute teachers' home numbers, all my education board contacts, school development plans and personal and staff goals for the school year.
"My Excel documents can go in there, too - along with pupil scores and budgets for each member of staff and for the whole school."
For Graham, yet another benefit lies in the abililty to synchronise school timetable information so that problems can be dealt with on the spot.
"Sometimes there are hiccups - for example, where a class is not being covered - and the problem can be solved immediately," he says. "If you're visiting a classroom, it's easy to scribble notes on the pad to be shared with the teacher after a lesson, and which will be useful in your next observation.
"Conversations with the teacher are more meaningful - and that leads to better relationships. It lets staff see that you have an interest in their class and that you can support them."
If such discussions turn to the need for new resources, having Excel budget files to hand means he can decide on the spot. "Being seen to note a teacher's point and follow it up is much more professional than a handful of sticky notes and verbal promises," he says.
Ms Bell has found it a boon to be able to "beam" information to other staff who also have palmtops. In particular, it saved time and duplication in monitoring and evaluation, she says.
Graham, though, believes there is still much to be gained in terms of high-level decision-making and that there is potential for using palmtops to store data from the SIMS school management system. One problem is that files from that system cannot easily be transferred to palmtops, but a senior consultant from C2k is looking at ways to improve compatibility.
The RTU and its partners are also supporting the heads with meetings and online conferencing to help participants to share ideas and experiences.
There are plans to double the size of the project next year to 20 schools and encourage heads to share ideas with colleagues in Alaska and Hawaii, and their experience will feed into the RTU's leadership schemes. C2k also plans for a wireless project that will extend the range and variety of the digital assistants.
Dr Reg North, an independent evaluator, says: "The pilot scheme has produced efficiency gains, allowing principals more opportunity to engage in activities that they value highly.
"Second, they are more effective managers of their day-to-day educational environment - primarily through the ease of capturing, storing and accessing vital school-based information in periods of personal mobility.
"These gains contribute to a more optimistic view about their situation and themselves as key education managers."
In his notes to the evaluator, McCelland leaves no doubt about how the device has struck at the very heart of the matter. The palmtop, he writes, has helped heads to "remain closer to the real values we came into teaching for - to educate pupils, assist whole-school improvement and make a difference".
* Northern Ireland Regional Training Unit: www.rtuni.org
* eLearning Partnership: www.elearningfutures.com
* emPowering Schools Strategy www.empoweringschools.com
* For more about Mark Standley's work on "handheld leaders" with heads in Alaska and Hawaii see www.handheld.com and www.mstandley.com