Guest post from SharePointEduTech.

The school

Forest Hill School is a boys’ 11 – 16 school with a mixed sixth form, 1450 students in all. It has specialist Performing Arts status. The school serves a heavily disadvantaged area, and was designated ‘Good’ by Ofsted in 2011 with Care, Guidance and Support judged ‘Outstanding’.

Forest Hill was one of the first of thirteen Lewisham Schools that have been, or will be, renewed under the Borough’s Building Schools for the Future project, which was in train before the cancellation of BSF in 2010.

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Properly installed and managed, ICT can be used to build a learning gateway which will be the school’s working environment, in effect a virtual version of the school. It goes by various names – ‘gateway’ and ‘portal’ are common, but there are others often incorporating the name of the school. As busy and vibrant as the ‘real’ school, this virtual school buzzes with communication and information, flowing and changing in tune with what’s happening in the classrooms and offices. Users enter first thing in the morning and leave it, well, any time they choose, because it continues to be available from home.

That was the vision to which the senior leadership at Forest Hill School in Lewisham aspired when they had the opportunity to rethink and renew their ICT provision. However, although vision is a crucial part of leadership, bringing it to fruition is equally important. That it happened at Forest Hill – and remarkably quickly – is down to a series of well-taken decisions.

First came that determination that it could and should be done. Then there was the conviction that the best way to achieve it was through Microsoft SharePoint. From that followed the school’s realisation that although their IT ‘home team’ was skilful and knowledgeable, this task called for input from SharePoint specialists. And this, in turn, led to the engagement of proven SharePoint consultancy SharePointEduTech.

Decision time

By the end of 2012, Forest Hill, which was early into the BSF (Building Schools for the Future) programme, had been in its new building for five years. During that time, ICT had been provided by a managed and hosted service on a five year arrangement which was part of the BSF contract.

‘We moved from a building with no technology to a new- build school with lots of technology,’ says Deputy Head Jonathan Munt. ‘We pretty well overhauled everything – the MIS (management information system), registration, reporting, interactive whiteboards, the full package. We became very cutting edge, a European Reference Site in fact.’

Towards the end of the five years, however, there was a change of contractor, and the level of service declined. Staff, who had worked hard to come to terms with rapid and radical change, began to lose their enthusiasm.

So, with the five-year contract coming to an end, the decision was taken for the school to take ownership of its ICT infrastructure. This, decided Jonathan Munt, could now include a fully developed school portal, providing ready access to all of the services required by students, staff, governors and parents.

The answer was Microsoft SharePoint.

At Forest Hill, the legacy ICT estate included a SharePoint application that had been used largely, and in a loosely organised way for document storage. This, decided Jonathan Munt, would be the starting point for further development. He decided, too, that it was going to be necessary to seek help from beyond the school.

‘Our guys were good. I knew they could set something up, but I knew the system had more potential than we could achieve ourselves. I wanted something aesthetically pleasing, a multiplatform for students at school and at home, using their PCs or phones, a consistent experience wherever they were, able to access resources and communicate. I wanted parents to have information on their children, all of that and more. And I wanted it live, up to date, in real time.’

A big ask, you might think. But Jonathan wasn’t living in a dream world. He’d seen exactly that in other schools, where he knew that the work had been done by SharePoint specialists, SharePointEduTech, and so they were engaged first for consultancy, then for the implementation.

Building the solution.

Perhaps the biggest challenge facing the school and the developers was the speed at which they had to work. Consultancy with the school began in late October 2012, the legacy ICT contract finished at the end of the year and the new portal – ‘FHS Connect’ – was installed over the Christmas holiday required to be up and running in early January. That this was achieved in all essentials, despite the represents a huge achievement by the developers and the school. It’s very clear that the key lay in a very professional relationship between SharePointEduTech directors and developers on the one hand and Forest Hill management and technical staff on the other. From the school there was clarity about the essentials of what they needed, and from the SharePointEduTech came responsive yet pro-active engagement with the mission. Adrian Edgar the SharePointEduTech director running the project pays tribute to Jonathan Munt’s decisiveness.

‘He has a clear vision of everything being in one central place where everybody goes for whatever function they need.’

For their part, the SharePointEduTech team were offering advice right from the start.

That’s not to say there were no modifications along the way. Always, with a project like this, when the customer sees what’s emerging, new and different ideas are sparked off. For example, says Adrian Edgar,

‘They originally characterised subject areas by year group with separate sites. Then they decided to revise that to key stages, providing a bit more flexibility. It was that kind of iterative process, changing to meet what they wanted.’

And for his part, Jonathan is equally impressed with the ideas coming from SharePointEduTech.

‘We’d planned one server for SharePoint,’ says Jonathan. ‘They recommended two as part of a farm. We wouldn’t necessarily have done that, but it’s made a big difference to the speed at which everything works. It’s an example of how good they are at the technical aspects.’

As time went on, Jonathan was increasingly impressed with this positive approach. One feature that continues to impress him is ‘My programs’, a place on the portal where students can place links to access, from home, specialist software on the school network. So, for example, computer science students can continue to work with their programming software from home without the need to have it on their home computers. In a school where many students do not have sophisticated equipment at home, this is a real bonus.

‘We didn’t know that was possible,’ says Jonathan. ‘Before, students keeping up with their coursework were having to squeeze in hours before and after school. Now they can work at home, it’s a real improvement for their learning.’

FHS Connect

What the school now has is an extensive and flexible portal – ‘FHS Connect’ – branded for the school, with separate single sign-on access for staff, students, governors and parents. So the staff view, for example, has headings that include My documents, emails, the school diary, a link to the school’s ‘Fronter’ VLE, library software, timetable, details of ‘cover’ duties, notices and their own ‘My programs’ section. A feed from the MIS provides quick access to important student data. The whole, of course, is available on an anytime, anywhere basis. It looks neat and professional and – importantly – it carries the school’s branding out to users. The intention is that a teacher, for example, should log at the start of each day, because that’s where they’ll be set up for the day.

‘Let’s see. I’m covering for Rachel period 4, I have a couple of unread emails, there’s a note about access to school in the holidays, a reminder of the department meeting with a link to the supporting documents……’

The student view has some of the same headings where they’re appropriate, including ‘My programs’ and also draws on the MIS so they can see their targets and progress.

Parent view gives access to permitted MIS data, including attendance – daily and lesson by lesson, so a parent could track a child through the school day were they so minded.

The extra mile

Jonathan Munt is clearly delighted with the way his vision has been achieved and exceeded by SharePointEduTech’s experienced and creative response.

‘We now have a new SharePoint environment that does a lot more than we thought possible, doing things we didn’t know it could do and so much is down to their advice. They have a very proactive approach that says “SharePoint can do this” and that specialist knowledge has proved crucial through the transition. I’m confident now that we have an infrastructure that’s future-proofed and resilient.’