Guest post from freelance writer, Gerald Haigh. Gerald writes regularly for the Microsoft Education blogs.

As I watched Microsoft Schools Business Manager Sean O’Shea carrying three big boxes of brand new HTC smartphones into Barnsley Academy, on 23rd of May, I couldn’t resist thinking, just for a moment, ‘What would Ofsted Chief Sir Michael Wilshaw have to say about this?’.

That soon went away, though, because there’s no doubt that Sean’s phone delivery marked the first step in an interesting and potentially highly significant initiative that may well be rooted in technology, but is firmly and primarily focussed on supporting and improving learning. A partnership of Microsoft, phone supplier HTC, Barnsley Academy itself, and the academy chain to which they belong, United Learning Trust (ULT), the project aims to explore the potential for Windows Phone in education.

Instantly, the questions pop up. Why Windows Phone? Why Barnsley Academy? And how will it work?

Windows Phone is ideal for education. It integrates freely and easily with Microsoft cloud technologies, such as Office 365, for example, opening up endless possibilities for sharing and communication for school administrators, teachers and students.

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And Barnsley Academy? Because, it’s successful, firmly set on an upward trajectory (In Ofsted terms it’s moved from ‘Satisfactory and improving’ in 2009 to ‘Good’ in Spring 2012 and is also the most improved school in Yorkshire based on 2009 to 2011 results ). It already has a computer science course, and is looking at linking to the Microsoft Technology Associate (MTA) exams. Additionally, they are in the process of moving to Office 365, all of which clearly indicate that this is the very last place where people are likely to look at their new smartphones and wonder what to do with them.

In the opinion of ULT Director of ICT and e-Learning James Garnett, himself an enthusiastic Windows Phone user, of all his twenty or so Academies, Barnsley has the confidence, capability and experience to take on the project.

‘They have the capacity both technically and in their work on the curriculum. My role is to provide the central office support and to spread their work across our other schools.’

The ‘how’ question began to be answered at that 23rd May meeting, which was a very significant encounter between some powerful Microsoft minds and a group of school staff – teachers, curriculum leaders and network staff -- who were clearly well able to deal with everything that came up. Sean handed out the phones (HTC have supplied 26 in the first instance) and explained the vision that Microsoft – with HTC – have for this project, which is that Windows Phone, in the hands first of staff and then, increasingly, of students, beginning in the sixth form, will effectively be a learning hub. It will be used to develop apps, to support the computer science curriculum and to access other curriculum materials particularly via ‘DreamSpark’, which is already in use in the Academy.

Additionally, of course, it will be used for communication and collaboration. In this regard, James Garnett believes Windows Phone, with its facility for integrating and grouping contacts for example, to be considerably more effective than, say iPhone, as a business tool.

The key point, though, is that there’s real clarity within the academy that the underlying purpose of this project is to support the drive for continuous improvement in learning outcomes. Jane Harris, Director of ICT at Barnsley Academy, says,

‘We want to take children on routes that interest them and will inspire them, that they’ll enjoy doing and will prepare the for jobs in the future. It’s natural to move into programming and coding, with projects that are exciting and educationally based.’

She echoes James Garnett on the significance here of the school’s Ofsted record of improvement,

‘It gives us the confidence to do things that are difference, a bit more left field perhaps.’

What’s crucial in all of this is the support which the Academy will have from Microsoft. Lee Stott, Developer and Platform Evangelism (DPE) Lead, a person for whom the phrase, ‘agog with enthusiasm’ was invented, will, for example, provide curriculum packs for the academy, culled from the wealth of Microsoft’s material. There’s potential, too, for linking with Microsoft’s Partners in Learning (PiL) programme, which will give the Barnsley project, and its leaders, a global presence.

Importantly, all of this, some of it flying several metres above my head, was fielded and absorbed by the Barnsley team, and there’s no doubt that the Microsoft contingent left the meeting feeling very optimistic that the project has found a good home, and that it can help improve the life chances of students in a part of the world that’s been having a raw deal for several decades.

From now to the end of the school year, Barnsley Academy staff will be exploring their Windows Phones. In September there’ll be a roll-out to some students. We’ll undoubtedly be there to cover that, and to look in more detail at some of the multiple development strands that will emerge, particularly as students get their creative hands on the devices.