How are schools using technology? PCR interviews a headteacher and IT subject leader

EDUCATION SECTOR SPOTLIGHT: PCR visits St Norbert’s Catholic Primary School to ask headteacher Louise Yarnell and IT subject leader India Whyles about how important technology is in education.

The school hosted a STEM workshop activity day for students and teachers, run by the Tablet Academy and sponsored by Ebuyer. You can read more about that on page 22 in the August 2015 issue of PCR and our chat with the Tablet Academy, who said that teacher training is key to improving technology in schools.

Why did Saint norberts Catholic primary school decide to get involved with this initiative?

Louise Yarnell, headteacher: Basically, we’re trying to make learning as fun and practical as possible for our children. We’re giving them the opportunity to have that curiosity of real life opportunities and investigations with time to solve problems, logic solve, be critical in their thinking. And they can apply this to life positions in engineering, in computing, in mathematical terms, so that they can see the skills they’re developing over their time with us at school but it actually does have a place in the world out there.

India Whyles, IT subject leader: Also, it gives them an additional purpose for technology as well, beyond what they do at home and their normal experiences – so it’s about trying to extend that as well. It’s creative and engaging, and we hope that they will then be the leaders for our children and also at home as well.

It’s more than games and cartoons…

Louise Yarnell: Very much so.There’s a wealth of information out there and it’s giving them the things that will be useful for them in an educational purpose that will develop their minds and grow their learning, and give them the skills to be able to go out into life, be independent and aspirational with what they want to achieve – to have those aspirational targets for themselves.

We’re starting ‘Digital Leaders’ next year as part of our school development plan. We have a very strong pupil voice already in the school. We have e-safety monitors as well as pupil voice through equal ambassadors etc. But we felt the way the new curriculum has developed with computing and programming, that Digital Leaders would be the way forward next year, so India will be leading with that with some children next year.

India Whyles: And it’s very much driven by the children. They will work with children in other schools and also with staff, because often children take things in much quicker with technology than adults do. They’re the digital natives of the world, they grasp things by the horns and aren’t afraid to have a go. By fostering that team to be the leaders within the school, along with Mrs Yarnell and myself to do the appointments as it were, it’s very much the plan that the children are the driving force and are getting creative with it as well.

Also, putting on that personal spin for the children and what they want to learn, because sometimes it’s easy for adults to think: “Well, they need to know this. We’ve got targets and the curriculum to follow.” But sometimes children are the creative light behind it and having that inspirational leadership from children is also really important.

What exactly is Digital Leaders?

India Whyles: It’s something the schools advertise for like a proper job post. It’s pitched at year five and year six children, as they are the older, more responsible ones with greater understanding and are good leaders. It’s all good practice. They have to apply for the post, they go to shortlisting, they have interviews, so there’s a proper process that they have to be completely commited and involved in. Then they take part in in-house training that they get to upskill themselves, and then they are in charge of disseminating that among children and other classes.

Also, they make sure best practice happens; they lead clubs for children as well, very much being the forerunners of ICT to push it forward along with the staff. 

Louise Yarnell: And there is an IT company (I think it’s Digital Me) that run support and guidance for Digital Leaders. We’re hoping to tap into them – they do an online badge system so the children can lead, as India said, CPD within school, give children the skills and it’s kind of like your old Brownies or Scout badge for certain projects, like an animation or whatever the skills or programming they’re actually doing. So that’s something we’re investigating and launching next year.

IT subject leader India Whyles (left) and headteacher Louise Yarnell (right) with some of their students at St Norbert’s Catholic Primary School – click the image for more pictures from the STEM workshop activity day

How has the new curriculum, which came into force last year and focuses on things like computer coding, changed the way you teach?

India Whyles: I think there’s been a lot of CPD for staff, but that started over a year ago and was what we call ‘debugging’ the curriculum. I think it was the terminology that scared a lot of people because it became a lot less user friendly compared to the old curriculum, however a lot of the objectives haven’t changed at all – it just sounded a lot scarier.

We’ve had a great deal of investment in, additional providers and services in terms of Lego NXT robots and programming that way, the use of multiple technologies. Also, having investment within school with our own programming apps and dataloggers, all those things that sometimes it’s easy to forget about. Even the bread and butter of the robots is so important for the children to understand. In terms of the e-safety side as well, because obviously that’s a big focus of the new curriculum, we pre-empted that quite a long time before and we’re quite strong with our e-safety and going through the 360-degree safe audits and the progression with that. We’ve stayed very up to date with the specialist training for staff.

Louise Yarnell: The e-safety monitors have led sessions for each class on e-safety, so they get the information first and then they have disseminated that really well. They’ve had training from the actual county advisor as well. So in terms of the new curriculum we’ve grabbed it and have been able to run with it pretty easily.

Are there any key changes being made to the curriculum this year that IT resellers should be aware of, when supplying IT goods to schools?

Louise Yarnell: No we’ve not had any news that anything is changing. I think some schools haven’t run as fast as the new curriculum that we did. We’ve done it just over 12 months ago so this year has been quite exciting. There’s been a lot of technology work in schools but also outdoor learning has been a big push for us this year. And we’ve seen all the devices going outside – that’s been a big push for us. Our collaboration with other schools as well. We had our science and maths day, so today is a second type of event like that with a different school.

Also, the children have had opportunities to have kids meet days, where they have launched different aspects of learning. One aspect of that last year for our kids meet was the Lego robots. It was like a trade fair event for children where each school did something different. And children went to visit the stalls to see what was going on. And then those opportunities can be taken on by other schools. So I think that collaboration and thinking about all children being upskilled in what they need for the world is really important.

India Whyles: It widens the opportunity for others beyond our own boundaries, as it were.

How do you source your IT?

Louise Yarnell: We use mainstream budget and devolved formula capital (DFC) for IT refresh. We use a company called Ark for our IT support and technical support, and obviously we do best value, but recently we have purchased a lot of our hardware through them as well. They’re a local IT company. They’re the people who recommended which products would be best when we were going down the tablet route, whether it’s a Windows tablet or an iPad for example, because a lot of schools have gone down the iPad route.

The Windows tablets are fab because they are cheaper, obviously you do have Word and Excel that the children are used to using.

India Whyles: And they can also access our central network as well. So they can retrieve things they’ve done on laptops and PCs, and still edit and work from something handheld outside the ICT suite. It all syncs to our network, so photos we take and documents and so on.

How do you discover new technologies?

Louise Yarnell: Ark do an annual demonstration show with a lot of different IT providers come to, then we get the opportunity to see what’s out there and where we want to go with it. And my governors are really good at strategic planning and thinking about having a rolling programme off upgrading, and refreshing laptops and PCs and handheld devices for children, so they are moving forward with that all the time.

What’s the reaction been like to this event?

India Whyles: It’s very exciting because I go in there with my class this afternoon. When the event got emailed through to me and I passed it on to Louise, we were both excited about the opportunities. And also, it gives us a fresh look at something different that we might not have thought of. The children are experiencing using technology in different ways and with different apps. They might say: “Oh we really would like this in school because we could use it and apply it in x, y, z.”

Any acquisition of skills is a wonderful thing. And I know in something like technology and using tablets, it’s always something that will engage children. They find technology exciting but also familiar, it’s almost an exciting comfort blanket in a way where they can feel confident using technologies.

Louise Yarnell: And comfortable moving between different interfaces, far more than we are at doing! So they’re very confident and independent, and definitely lead the way forward.

PCR’s Sector Spotlight on Education is running throughout August – click here for more articles

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