Return from the brink

25th April 1997 at 01:00
Martin Titchmarsh describes how his school revived its IT abilities. In 1992 Nobel School was inspected by a team of Her Majesty's Inspectors of Schools. As an inspector dissected our IT provision, gently skewering me with each question, I was reminded of the funereal tone of a Fifties radio programme, Edgar Lustgarten's Famous Trials: "Crippen slumped in the dock as the prosecution leaned forward and asked the question, the fatal question, which placed the noose around his neck."

Although our failure to deliver IT was not a capital offence, HMI quite rightly produced a damning report. Last year, and four years on, the school was inspected by the Office for Standards in Education and the report said: "Information technology is one of the school's strengths." How then did we make such a considerable improvement?

The poor report confirmed my view that something had to be done. It was necessary to carry out a root and branch review of our approach and to make fundamental changes. Most importantly, it was necessary to gain the support of the whole staff.

Curricular organisation was a tricky problem. The persuasive argument for me was that in our particular situation we had to reinvigorate the subject, release IT from the stranglehold of a few teachers and give the facility to the whole staff.

The first fundamental decision was to install a whole school network. We decided to have no general IT rooms and to place computers in clusters in faculty areas. Heads of faculty agreed to have responsibility for the delivery of specific aspects of IT and in turn were able to make requests for IT provision to meet their curricular needs. They had often been frustrated by lack of access to IT and welcomed the opportunities their own cluster of machines would bring. We, however, agreed that the cross-curricular approach should be supplemented by some discrete timetabled IT courses.

Having worked out general principles, we appointed a new IT co-ordinator. We wanted a person who had the technical expertise to lead the development and yet, more importantly, had the personal qualities to gain the trust and confidence of the staff. In Ron Stone, head of maths, we found the person. He is an enthusiast capable of enthusing others. Without his exceptional contribution our IT development would not have been possible.

Having decided our overall approach and got the right people in place, we went out to tender for the installation of a network. There were two companies capable of providing a PC network to the school: RM and ICL. Our brief to them was to design a network that was within our budget, was compatible with our curricular approach, met subject-specific needs and which incorporated some existing PC 286 machines.

We learned a great deal from our discussions with both companies and redefined our ideas. We eventually chose RM, purchasing the network on a lease. Not only was RM substantially cheaper, we also felt RM produced a system which specifically addressed the school's curricular needs.

Software was provided by RM. All pupils log on using the standard Windows icons. We felt it important that pupils encountered the same desktop wherever they logged on in the school. They are then able to select a subject, or year group area, which contains both standard software as well as subject specific software.

Staff expertise varied from those who had considerable experience to those who had scarcely used a computer. A cultural change was needed to help some staff realise IT applications were easy, that IT could enhance learning and that it could make their job easier and more satisfying. We devoted a considerable amount of finance to training. What was encouraging was the way staff encouraged each other. Staff and pupils also worked alongside, helping each other.

Four years on, our IT development has brought about a dramatic change. Network rooms are open to pupils after school and at break and lunch. They are always crowded. IT has improved pupil's motivation, and not only have pupils learned specific IT skills, the quality of their work has improved across the curriculum.

The development of IT has been a catalyst in the changes we are making to our approach to teaching and learning.

I attribute some of the success of our OFSTED report, where 55 per cent of lessons inspected were described as "good" or "very good", to subtle changes in the way we teach and pupils learn, brought about by our IT development.

We have gradually expanded our hardware. We intend in the next stages to extend our lease and buy more equipment. There is, however, still much work to be done. We recognise that we need to pay more attention to monitoring the delivery of IT across the curriculum. Assessment, recording and reporting of IT needs further development. This is, of course, the sticking point of the cross-curricular approach. We still tend to record pupils' experience of IT rather than actual attainment.

The hard work of the staff and their commitment to our IT development has been impressive. It was therefore particularly pleasing to see their contribution recognised in our latest OFSTED report: "A strength of the school's provision lies in the widespread use of IT in the subject areas, where the application is enthusiastically promoted by departments."

Occasionally a school is uplifted and standards are raised through concerted action by all staff. I cannot remember any innovation which has had such a profound effect. It has moved the whole school forward.

Martin Titchmarsh is headteacher of the Nobel School, Stevenage

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