Guest post by education writer Gerald Haigh

A large and successful secondary school for boys sets out to use technology to further improve its strong record of student attainment. Working in a strategic partnership with consultancy 3E, and managed ICT services specialist Civica, the school is developing a broad-based ICT programme which at the time of writing is beginning to transform teaching and learning across the board. Microsoft Office 365 with SharePoint 2013 plays a key role in this exciting project.

imageIn early December I visited St Birinus School in Didcot, just off the A34 south of Oxford.

I never tire of school visits, but this one was a bit special, not least because I was a double guest. I was there, in fact, courtesy of the school and also of Microsoft partner ‘Civica’, who were at the school for their own series of filmed interviews, which they generously allowed me to observe, making my own notes.

It was, in fact, a collaborative enterprise, which was entirely appropriate because this is a story about collaboration – between governors, parents and the school, between staff and students within the school and, of course between the school and specialist partners Civica and 3E Associates. It’s a great story, and deserves telling in some detail, so we’re spreading it over two blogs. Here we go then, with part one.

Starting out on transformation

No school wants to stand still in its quest to provide the best possible life chances for its students, and so the leadership at St Birinus, which is judged ‘Good’ by Ofsted, is constantly focussed on moving towards ‘Outstanding’. The appropriate deployment of ICT is seen as a key driver in this, and so in September of 2012, they took the decision to review the current IT infrastructure, which they felt needed attention.

In order to gain an objective view of the school’s ICT, they engaged Mark Stevenson, a 3E consultant specialising in IT strategy and procurement within schools. His report confirmed that the school’s existing IT infrastructure was essentially unfit for purpose.

‘It had organically grown with no real structure,’ he says. ‘Choices had been made on the basis of what seemed a good idea rather than on the positive impact on teaching and learning. There was no long term vision for IT and all decisions were reactive.’

Mark carried out what was in effect an audit of existing ICT provision under the 3E ‘iMark’ which is -

‘A holistic ICT Service Health Check providing a detailed understanding of the strengths and weaknesses of the current ICT service within the School – not just focusing on technology but also on a wide range of different areas that positively impact learning and teaching as well as the functioning ICT service.’

On the basis of the findings, senior leaders and governors met in a series of strategic workshops which challenged the ICT status quo and began to develop a new vision and a strategic plan that would provide a roadmap to transform IT at the school over the next five years.

Finding the way forward

Once there was clarity about the future – direction, costs, training, target dates, asset procurement, implementation process – the school, advised by 3E, embarked on a partnership with managed service provider Civica appointed using the DfE ICT Framework.

There was consultation throughout with students and parents, who were part of the decision-making process that appointed Civica as the strategic ICt partner.

‘It was brave of the governors to do that.’ says Mark Stevenson, pointing out that ensured there was commitment across the board.

‘There was buy-in from all the stakeholders in the school.’

The Civica partnership

Deputy head Jim Fuller, who has led this whole considerable development exercise says,

‘We were looking for a strategic partner, to be part of the organisational structure – experts in the ICT field rather than just a provider. It’s a different kind of relationship, and we’ve seen a whole range of benefits from that, with Civica staff on site, and monitoring by their back office in Leeds.’

Building the portal with and Civica Cloudbase and Office 365

The leadership at St Birinus knew that the key to effective use of ICT lay with flexibility and ease of access online to all the digital services and facilities that teachers and students require for their learning. In practical terms, this means providing an easily navigated single sign-on point of access. As many schools, colleges and universities have found, the best way to achieve this is by using Microsoft SharePoint to construct a branded ‘portal’, tailored to the school’s needs. Civica are ideally placed to provide this, with their own ‘Cloudbase’ solution, which uses SharePoint in Office 365 as the starting point.

Civica’s approach at St Birinus, as with their other installations, was to engage one of their e-Learning consultants with the school – David Boulton in this case. David’s task was to work with the staff of the school to ensure that the portal provided what was wanted. The fact that he is a trained and experienced teacher, like all Civica e-Learning consultants, is very relevant in this relationship.

‘You need an intermediary between the technical team and the school, people who understand how schools work. We go in and sit with the teachers, hearing how each department needs something different for example. Schools do appreciate the fact that we are fellow-professionals helping to build a completely bespoke solution, rather than just offering something out of the box with half a day’s training.’

The whole process is very organic; a carefully worked out feature on the portal may seem inappropriate six months on, which is why the continuing partnership is important.

‘Office 365 ticks all the boxes’

David is enthusiastic about Office 365 and SharePoint 2013.

‘Office 365 with web apps provides the whole solution. Some schools like the term ‘managed learning environment’ (MLE). Users can log on and see MIS data, email, ParentPay, school trip details, staff appraisal online forms with Microsoft Infopath. All the resources are there, parents can see homework for example.’

The real beauty of it all is that it’s in the cloud, available anytime from anywhere on any device, which is particularly attractive to schools which, like St Birinus, are developing a ‘Bring your own device’ (BYOD) policy.

As he says, ‘Office 365 ticks all the boxes.

To be continued --

‘Ticking the boxes’ is one thing. What’s also needed is push and inspiration from someone who reassure and lead colleagues as they find out just what an expertly deployed Office 365 application can do for teaching and learning.

So in a further blog we will take the St Birinus story on, looking at implementation, BYOD, and student voice.

Civica www.civica.co.uk

3E Associates

www.3e-a.co.uk