Yesterday we were out and about on a West Midlands road trip with a gaggle of colleagues from the global education team. The aim of the trip was to see some of the things that are happening in UK schools, to inform our future directions and policies.

It was a little bit like a school trip, as I checked at each stage we hadn’t lost anybody on our way. The ‘Tour Party’ was:

  • Steve Beswick, the Microsoft UK Director of Education
  • Anoop Gupta, Corporate Vice President for Microsoft globally
  • Michael Golden, Corporate Vice President for our Education Products Group
  • Stephen Coller, Senior Director of Technology, Policy and Strategy

It is unusual to be able to get a couple of days of time from all of these people, and it was really nice that we were able to spend that time visiting schools, rather than stuck in the meeting rooms at our offices in Reading. It has been a busy fortnight for the HQ colleagues from Seattle, as they were over for BETT, then onto other European countries. Finally, they landed back in Birmingham on Wednesday night, flying in from Portugal via Germany! They would probably have appreciated a break from the pace and energy of travel, but no let up in the Midlands.

Great Barr School

We started our visit at Great Barr School, with a packed 3 hour agenda, sitting in lessons, taking maths tests (eek!), meeting teachers and governors as well as the leadership team and the IT team. It was good to be in a classroom to see the reality of teaching today.

GeographyClassroomNeil Morland’s Geography Lesson

Perhaps it’s because Geography was my favourite subject at school, but I really enjoyed sitting in a Geography lesson with Neil Morland. The lesson was one China’s ‘One Child per Family’ policy, and although it wasn’t an ICT rich lesson, Neil had created a PowerPoint presentation using pictures, music & text to get across an important message to introduce the lesson. When I watch people presenting in business, using PowerPoint, it is amazing how often I see them tripped up by the technology, or simply unfamiliar with what the mouse buttons do. Whereas Neil was confidently using a remote mouse pointer to pause the the PowerPoint and music, in order to discuss a point, before carrying on. I don’t know how many teachers have a remote mouse (or similar remote gadget) but it made a real difference to the way that the lesson flowed, and conversation could be constructed.

The biggest thing I noticed in the classroom layout was that every single surface was covered in learning resources. Not just the walls, cupboards and windows – it is the first classroom I’ve visited that you can’t escape from learning by staring at the ceiling – covered in national flags.

Wandering around the classrooms

MathsClassroomAnother hour was spent wandering the school, dropping into lessons – into the science labs, the IT Support offices and the multimedia labs – and getting a sense of how learning is delivered in Great Barr, and how teachers are supported. There was one anxious moment (left), when a Year 8 Maths Group challenged us to a Maths Quiz, using Brain Trainer, to see who could get the highest score in 100 mental maths questions. Fortunately we had Anoop on our side, a professor of Computer Science and Electrical Engineering from Stanford University, and a holder of the President’s Gold Medal. Unfortunately, I was on our side too. And obviously the Year 8’s have had plenty of practice on their Nintendo’s – so in the end it was an unequal fight and we lost gracefully.

The other anxious moment was when we were in the corridors as the bell went (did I mention that Great Barr has 2,400 students and 350 staff?). The building guidelines that schools use – BB98 – define standard corridor dimensions for schools, and these are irrespective of the number of students. Even so, 2,400 students turning out on onto the standard narrow-corridors turned out to be okay – although we obviously had no choice about where we were going – we just had to go with the flow of the thousands!


In the conversations during the hour, we learnt a lot about the students and the school. 85% of the students have a broadband connection and computer at home, compared to 53% nationally. And that every teacher has their own laptop and every classroom has a projector (is there any school in the country where this isn’t yet true?)

And then the management side

After the tour, we all made it into one of their conference rooms, where we were able to spend some time discussing the school’s ICT strategies and how it was being used to support learning. There were some things that jumped out from this discussion - as this was a fast-paced discussion that kept changing direction, I’ll summarise some of the key bullets:

  • The Becta Self-Review Framework (SRF) had been really useful in deciding on priorities and to do an analysis of the starting position. At the first pass, in November 2007, the Red/Amber/Green analysis it produced showed just 53% of areas were green, whereas this month it shows 100% green.
  • The SRF revealed that the two development focus areas were ICT across the curriculum, and staff confidence with ICT.
  • The school has built a parental reporting gateway, to meet the online reporting targets, and currently have 900 parents using it. At around 40%, that seemed good compared to other schools I have talked with, but Great Barr were aiming for higher, and so have a range of initiatives in place to increase this, for example by promoting it heavily to the Year 7 intake this year.
  • Since May 2008, the school’s added 13 new servers – and because they are using virtualisation, that has meant only 4 new physical servers. That’s saving money as well as reducing the carbon footprint.
  • They use blogging in various parts of the curriculum, and the staff can use their choice of tool for this (the example we saw in History was a blog created in Blogger, but then the IT team brought that content directly into the school’s Learning Gateway. This seemed a great way to enable innovation and spread ownership, but maintaining a central way of accessing the whole set of teaching resources.
  • In German they use blogging to enable peer feedback – a student is able to create a blog post in German and then other students can add their comments (On a side note, it also illustrated the use of different writing styles – from formal to straight-forward ‘txt spk’ in the comments)
  • Alex Pearce, the “Learning Gateway and ICT Manager” at the school had done a really straightforward, and powerful, analysis of the linkage between ICT investment projects and the learning goals of the school. This allowed people to see how the current project (flood wireless) linked back to the Teaching and Learning objectives for the school.
    (I’ll see if I can get a copy from Alex, or ask him to pop it onto his blog)

Where next?

Technologically, Alex and Dan talked about how they want to provide support for students using ICT at home. One of their aims is to take advantage of the high broadband usage to provide Internet telephony (using Office Communications Server, which is now my default phone system when sitting at a desk). The other is how they can help students personally use ICT more in their learning, and using OneNote for supporting learning. (If you don’t know about OneNote, read Mike’s OneNote in Education blog)

Finally, after three hours had passed in a flash, we had to jump in a minibus to get to our next visit. Without a shadow of a doubt, we had all learnt a lot more than we expected at Great Barr School, and as we drove away, the buzz was already starting about what could happen if lots of other schools were making similar changes at a similar pace.