"Children experience new things and are more engaged with their learning when they're able to use these tools... it's really quite magical."
Melanie Pallister - Headteacher
A vision grounded in creativity, risk-taking and innovation
Manor Park CE (VC) First School is located on the edge of Dorset's county town, Dorchester, and provides education to three classes per year, from Reception to Year Four.
The educational vision of the school's head teacher, Melanie Pallister, is to provide every child with the skills and knowledge they need to succeed in the world beyond the school gates. Teaching staff support children to become curious, persistent and reflective learners, who are unafraid to take risks in their learning, by providing an exciting, creative and meaningful curriculum that celebrates innovation.
Ability to use ICT in lessons constrained
ICT is increasingly recognised as an important facilitator to learning, as well as a foundation skill in many of the careers that the children will one day have. However, in the summer of 2014, the school's ability to use technology was constrained.
Manor Park had a suite of 30, seven to eight years' old networked PCs, complete with their original operating systems, that were loaded with uninspiring, packaged software. The age and history of the machines meant that they struggled to complete routine tasks within a reasonable time.
Internet connectivity to the school was provided through a low-bandwidth broadband connection, routed by cables through a server to the PCs. The curriculum server was old and clogged up with too much stored information, leaving it prone to crashing exactly when it was needed most.
Further connectivity was provided through a single Wi-Fi access point located near the school office. Its signal was not powerful enough to provide some of the more distant classrooms with reliable connectivity.
Interactive whiteboards were installed in classrooms but, like the computers and server, they were old and their functionality was limited.
The constraints of the school's ICT infrastructure meant teachers did not feel confident to use technology to support their lessons.
An opportunity for transformation
Due to expansion, the school was given the go-ahead for major building work. The computer suite was located in an area that was scheduled to be demolished. This presented Mrs Pallister and the school's ICT technician, Tracy Broadbent, with an opportunity to completely rethink how ICT would be delivered in the school.
The pair had a close relationship with RM Education, one of the UK's longest established providers of ICT services to schools, and an expert in providing safe Internet connectivity. RM suggested the school take advantage of superfast broadband, then being rolled out in Dorset, which could be delivered to the site by the company through the South West Grid for Learning.
With a powerful, new Internet connection distributed across the school wirelessly, Manor Park would not need to replicate their old computing set up in a new location. Instead, it could use low-cost mobile devices to access services hosted in the cloud.
To reflect the school's vision of celebrating innovation, Mrs Pallister and Tracy took what seemed then to be a brave decision and decided to go forward with their ICT partner's suggestion. An exhilarating twelve-month journey lay before them.
A modern ICT model for schools
RM's simple suggestion lead to radical changes in the ICT infrastructure used across the school.
The new, superfast Internet connection is now distributed via an improved Wi-Fi network, with additional access points boosting the signal throughout the school. Complex networking infrastructure, including switching, routing, cabling and servers, was no longer required. This meant that when the old equipment was uninstalled it was not replaced.
"Managing a server ourselves was actually quite challenging. By having everything our server did now hosted in the cloud and accessed on a browser, I no longer have to worry about supporting the infrastructure. My time has been freed up to develop ICT initiatives that benefit of our children. Another benefit that's proved very popular is that whereas before staff could only use ICT at the school, now everyone can work anywhere, including at home, whenever they need to."
Tracy Broadbent - ICT technician
Instead of a dedicated computer suite that children had to make a special trip to use, Mrs Pallister wanted computing to be available all the time throughout the school, so teachers could easily enable children to use ICT in their problem-solving.
"Computing devices are now in every classroom, alongside traditional learning tools, including books and art materials. Children can select the tool that best support their lessons and the way they, as individuals, learn. We decided to purchase a range of different devices, including iPads and Chromebooks, so that children are exposed to different hardware and operating systems and to further increase their learning options."
Melanie Pallister - Head teacher
Many interactive whiteboards can only be used with the manufacturer's software, which does not align with Manor Park's vision for varied learning. Again, a bold decision was taken to select interactive, projected screens. These allow teachers and children to ‘write' on walls and are designed to use new, third party software, allowing their use to develop over time.
Changed educational culture
Teachers needed to adjust their lessons to actively embrace the new ICT model. They were tasked with finding and downloading apps they could use in their lessons - with the proviso the apps were free. The act of exploring the possibilities widened teachers' horizons, knowledge and confidence.
Tracy remains in charge of ICT infrastructure. However, as it's now vastly simplified, she has time to lead training on the opportunities ICT enables. She often takes a lead in lessons when new ICT applications are found, handing over to teachers as they become comfortable to take over.
Manor Park now uses gaming within lessons and some parents were concerned that its use was ‘playing' and not learning. To address these concerns they were shown how Year Four's learning was enhanced by building a World War II Anderson bomb shelter in Minecraft. Lead by the teacher, children are tasked with selecting an engineering approach and combination of materials. They can see which of their decisions worked best, when a simulated bomb is dropped on their shelters and only the best survive.
The ICT transformation at the school did not only benefit the children. It's also enhanced school administration.
Manor Park's management information system (MIS) was hosted on a server on the site, so had to be used on the premises. The school has been given access to RM Integris, a cloud hosted MIS, free of charge until their current MIS contract expires. It does everything the old MIS did and is quicker, easier to use and has additional useful features.
With most of its ICT infrastructure removed and services delivered by cloud providers, Manor Park no longer needs the level of external ICT support it did when its own infrastructure regularly created problems. The South West Grid for Learning's support covers the vital broadband connection, which to date has always worked perfectly. The risk of ICT service outage at the school has gone from very high to very low.
Big transformation at low cost
One of the most compelling lessons to other schools of Manor Park's story is that the transformation was delivered at a very low cost.
With nearly everything shifted to the cloud, there was no need to purchase expensive networking equipment for the school. ICT services are delivered through a few additional Wi-Fi points and accessed through relatively low cost, mainly consumer hardware.
The cost of the superfast broadband connection, providing 80mb download and 20mb upload speeds, is almost the same price as the previous, low bandwidth connection, even though Manor Park, a First School, now uses more bandwidth than most of the large local secondary schools.
Moving to Google Apps and other low-cost or free apps saved significant amounts of money because paid-for software licenses were discontinued.
The MIS solution, now RM Integris, will cost less than the previous system when the contract switches over.
Finally, with everything managed by third parties in the cloud, a comprehensive, external ICT support service was no longer needed so was ended.
Six months after starting their ICT journey, Mrs Pallister and Tracy attended RM's education event, REAL. While there, they met the leaders of Microsoft Education in the UK, with whom Tracy discussed the use of Minecraft in education. This lead to her being invited to join a Minecraft in UK Education panel with Microsoft, which is now active around the country.
The school's successes have also been recognised by other UK educators. Tracy regularly fulfils requests to visit schools and speak at regional events to help her peers replicate Manor Park's strategy. The school's determination to remain at the forefront of ICT will not only benefit Manor Park's pupils but others across the country too.
Reflecting on the ICT decision she took a year ago, Mrs Pallister commented, “Our overriding aim is to prepare our children for their lives ahead. Being able to use really modern ICT in lessons is incredibly valuable. Children experience new things and are more engaged with their learning when they're able to use these tools. We can see their horizons broadening in front of us and it's really quite magical.”
Manor Park, a first school, is leading the way for all schools in its local area and its example is generating interest further afield. Its success all started from a conversation about broadband, which means all schools can get to the same point if they're prepared to take the same, simple first step.