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The background

River View Primary School opened in September 2011 for children aged 3 to 11 – and there are now around 490 pupils on roll – including around 40 on Education Health Care Plans. As the name suggests, it is 200 metres from the River Irwell in the Lower Broughton area of Salford, 1.3 miles northwest of Manchester city centre.

The school has been designed to promote a positive learning environment for all, adopting new technologies and outdoor learning spaces that are central to their vision for effective 21st Century teaching and learning. As such they have worked with the technology partner, RM, since the outset, with RM originally kitting out the school premises – the initial technology vision, and then the IT infrastructure, hard wiring, complete smart whiteboards throughout, and the very latest stand-alone tilting computer screens. Whilst WiFi was installed, there was no great demand at this point.

Making technology work for you

As the original technology started to wear out five years ago, the school took the decision to move away from laptops and to consider Chromebooks as their future – recognising that they did not need fancy devices with great computing power – all that was required was a low cost, vanilla machine that performed all the tasks they needed – and a Chromebook was right up their street.

“We had a vision that IT should hover in the background – there when we needed it but it should never take over what we were trying to do”.

Daniel Gauld, Headteacher

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The school purchased 60 Chromebooks for their Year 5 pupils with the intention that those children would take them through with them until the end of Year 6. Each machine was personalised (for example, with stickers), and left in the school each evening to recharge. This seemed to work relatively well, and they even sold most of them to each respective child at the end of Year 6 for a nominal £50-60 each.

This proved a very successful model – purchasing new Chromebooks for each new Year 5 cohort, with a limited budget set aside at the start of their time, topped up with funds from the sale of the devices from the older year group as they left. Each of the 200 children in Key Stage 2 now has their own Chromebook, and as time has gone by, they are almost in a position where there are more Chromebooks than children.

With Chromebooks came Google Classroom, and 4 years ago – after a few false dawns – River View Primary started on their journey to become a Google-enabled school. They started by training 2-3 teachers to use it for twelve months, then the next 20 percent, then the rest of the teaching staff – even those who they knew would be the most resistant.

In September 2018, the school made it mandatory for all teachers and pupils (from Year 2 onwards) to be adept at using Google Classroom.

“The move to Google Classroom was actually much easier than I expected – children just knew what to do”.

Daniel Gauld, Headteacher

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With this, came the need to look again at the school’s WiFi provision. Until this point – like all schools in Salford, they had taken the standard package from the Local Authority, but there was a realisation that this would limit their ambitions. That said, it was not without its concerns, as River View became one of the first schools to move away from the Council service.

“Because RM understood what we were trying to achieve, it was relatively easy for them to put in place all the building blocks we needed – the right bandwidth we would require, the appropriate levels of security, the necessary training – it is just what they do every day for other schools up and down the country”.

Daniel Gauld, Headteacher

As the school became more and more digitally-enabled, the more they realised that having a technology partner – like RM – was a necessary investment.

“We are teachers – not technology experts. When our server fell over, we barely noticed – RM had it back up and running very quickly. We have become so reliant on the technology in the school that we just take it for granted that it just works”.

Daniel Gauld, Headteacher

Which plays back to that original vision of IT “hovering in the background”. But that only really works when the base infrastructure has been well designed and well-maintained; and where there is a reliable and trusted managed service partner on hand.

“For me, a proper partner is one who is proactive in recommending sensible new ideas – identifying the building blocks we need next”.

Daniel Gauld, Headteacher

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A cloud-based MIS

Running alongside all of this, was a realisation that there are alternatives to the traditional MIS system that most schools were using at this time.

For River View Primary this realisation came in 2007 at a conference in Bournemouth, where the headteacher saw a text messaging service between teachers and parents demoed for the first time, which they signed up for there and then. At the same time, an exhibitor asked the audience whether they knew there was an alternative to SIMS? Amongst a show of shaking heads, it became clear that there was, and it could be icon-based, intuitive, and accessible from anywhere. Whilst this was possibly a step too far for River View to buy at that point, the seed was sown.

Over the years, their incumbent MIS remained a DOS-based, clunky system – large and unmanageable for a smaller Primary like River View. Even some of the cleverer features – such as attendee management – required an export to Excel – it could not be done within the vast system. The headteacher kept looking back to what he had witnessed at the Bournemouth conference, but staff in the school were reluctant to move away from what they knew, and the Local Authority expected their returns to be done in the format that SIMS exported them.

It was then at another conference in March 2019, that the headteacher saw RM demonstrate their own MIS – RM Integris – fully cloud-based, icon-led, and fully incorporated within the infrastructure that the school now had. They signed up immediately.

Whilst the school were empowered to make this decision, the headteacher did discuss the proposal with the School Governors. This was a big decision and was firmly lodged on the school’s risk register. Given the underlying concerns with SIMS, the Governors were happy to support the recommendation, reassured that it was RM – with whom the school had worked for so long – who were behind it and would help ensure it was a success.

“We had an interesting conversation with our Local Authority – Salford Council. At first they were unsure whether they could support a MIS other than SIMS, but once we met with them and explained that this was the future, they accepted our decision, and we have seen few issues”.

Daniel Gauld, Headteacher

With the decision made, it was down to implementation. That task was shared between the School Business Manager (operational) and Strategic Director of Business and Operations (strategic), and was managed by them as a project – liaising with RM throughout on all things technical, but also best practice and tips from doing this with other schools, supporting training etc.

For the school, there was still much that they needed to do – their contract with SIMS ran until Spring 2020, and there was much work to be done to share the vision with colleagues in the school. RM accommodated this timeline, working with them on reassuring everyone that the switch over would be (relatively) seamless, and helping them manage the change from SIMS to RM Integris.

Fitting neatly alongside RM Integris is RM Finance, and River View signed up for that as well – a full accounting package to meet their needs. Like the MIS, this took some getting used to, as it works in a different way to their previous software – in some cases the added functionality that RM Finance brings can be complicated to understand, if it replaces a simpler – but less useful – system. But when that is understood, the benefits are multiple.

“Whilst we could not have envisaged it at the time we made the decision, having a cloud-based MIS and Finance system in place when the Covid pandemic hit, proved a huge advantage, giving us access to all our data – from telephone numbers to accessing the bills we had to pay – all from home”.

Daniel Gauld, Headteacher

A date was set to switch to RM Integris over the February half-term 2020, followed by RM Finance at Easter 2020. And then the pandemic hit. The school were further inconvenienced with their Business Manager being laid low poorly for a while – a combination of hurdles that served to make the seamless switchover somewhat more challenging than had been envisaged.

“It really was bad luck in all regards – whilst we knew this was a big decision, the timing was not ideal – but the fact that despite everything, we implemented it – moved away from SIMS – and had a new system in place, is a credit to all parties – in the school and within RM”.

Daniel Gauld, Headteacher

One year on, and the school are delighted with what RM Integris is enabling them to do. Naturally they have been on a journey, with many features different between the two systems (e.g. the way mail merge works) – but when the functionality is understood, there is no turning back.

“With RM on hand to help, we have overcome every hurdle. The help system is great – the tips and videos make it very clear to follow”.

Daniel Gauld, Headteacher

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For River View, it has opened a whole new set of opportunities – as well as the basic functionality of a good MIS, RM Integris provides each staff member with their own lens to look at the data. For the headteacher, there is a specific snapshot view showing everything from time-off to daily and weekly attendances – that they never had before and provides new insight to inform their role.

RM Integris can do much more than a basic MIS – with the added benefits of being all held within one system, but also meaning a single fee to pay. As an example, River View were paying for separate software for parental communication, for pupil progress tracking and assessment, safeguarding, MIS and accounting. With RM Integris, all of this can be done in one package.

“We have got our money back 10-fold with RM Integris versus what we had been paying with SIMS – apart from the like-for-like costs on an MIS, RM Integris does so much more – one package does all that we were using five different products to do for us before – each with their own price tags”.

Daniel Gauld, Headteacher

The pandemic

When the pandemic came in March 2020, and the Prime Minister announced that schools would close to all but the vulnerable and children of key workers, many schools were daunted by what this would mean – for River View, they took it in their stride.

“We have seen a meteoric step forward in technological take-up amongst our staff – we have moved forward 5 years in a matter of months. The amazing thing is that most of this capability was already here – it took the pandemic to encourage us to look at what we could do with the technology we already had”.

Daniel Gauld, Headteacher

With a combination of Chromebook devices, the infrastructure that Google Classroom allowed, and a new found confidence in using the technology, the school blossomed through this period.

“It has been somewhat eerie during Lockdown to walk past a classroom and you could hear a pin drop – all of the key worker pupils tuning in to Remote Learning lessons via headphones!”

Daniel Gauld, Headteacher

The lessons learnt

  1. Have a vision, a plan, and stick to it – for River View Primary, they knew where they wanted to get to, they knew that technology had a role, but did not want that to dominate what they needed to do. They found a technology partner (in this case, RM), explained to them their goal, and then left them to advise the steps that they needed to take.
  2. You need a long lead-in time to substantive change – the switch to RM Integris by River View Primary had been planned carefully over 12 months, with the right people assigned to the project – people who understood the day-to-day impacts of such a change.
  3. Ask for help – the kind of project management skills that are required to support switching MIS is not something that many Primary Schools practice that often, so having a technology partner on hand who has done this many times before – is critical.
  4. Just do it – despite all the trepidations and nervousness, changing MIS provider is worth it in the end. It can bring a whole new outlook to running a school, open new angles, as well as simplify so many tasks through a more intuitive operating system.
  5. Engage with stakeholders – whilst taking Governors with you is sensible, just as important are those who will be using the new system – explain the reasons for change and keep them informed all along the way.
  6. Think about the total cost of ownership – whilst River View Primary found that like-for-like they were saving money moving from SIMS to RM Integris, when all the other savings and added value that this brings is included, the benefit case is substantial – and that is before you think of the time saved by doing it all in one system with one sign-on, and one set of training – plus a “single source of the truth” to all the data.
  7. Do not try to do it all at once – for River View Primary, they found it helped them to break the tasks into chunks – parental communication, safeguarding, MIS, Finance systems – were spread out over time.

The future

River View Primary School made an early decision to deliver effective 21st Century teaching and learning through the better use of technology. When that decision was made, they never envisaged a pandemic, nor providing individual devices for most of their children, or even moving away from their established MIS provider. They have come a long way in a short time. Where will the next 5 years take them?

“Technology is the enabler to a modern school – from allowing a child who cannot attend due to illness to continue their studies, to enabling a teacher to make their lesson come alive with real imagery, to helping our hard-working support staff do their job from wherever they are, to supporting my senior team with data to better support our pupils’ development. We really are living in an enlightened age”.

Daniel Gauld, Headteacher

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