How many schools across the world have a student who’s a World Champion?

Not many, I guess. The remarkable Sawtry Community College in Huntingdon, though, has had two in the last three years. Students Rebecca Rickwood and Kieran Youngman won their titles at the Certiport Microsoft Office Specialist World Championships, held each year in the USA.

Rebecca won her ‘ Excel’ World Championship in San Diego in 2011, when she was 15. Kieran, 17, won the championship for Microsoft ‘Word’ this year (2013) in Washington DC .

Their success was achieved against formidable opposition, particularly from Asian countries. Each year some 300,000 students enter their own national and regional competitions, with the winners going forward to the World Championship.

Interviewed afterwards the Sawtry champions showed an engaging combination of pride, delight and modesty, but they were very sure of the value of what they had achieved.

As Kieran said,

‘Certification is the only way you can prove that you can do what you say you can. It’s an industry standard, and it shows employers that I know how to use Office products. ’

Rebecca, who spent her 5000 dollar prize on a new flute (she plays in the county youth orchestra) said

‘I’d like to go into something to do with computers.

It’ll help a lot with university and job interviews. It makes you stand out really.’

Grown from strong roots

Kieran and Rebecca have done exceptionally well, but I know they’ll understand if I don’t make this blog just about them. It’s important, I feel, to recognise that their achievement is no flash in the pan. In fact it could well be repeated by other Sawtry students in the future. That’s because it springs from the school’s ambitious programme of training and accreditation in Microsoft technologies run by lead Microsoft trainer Pam Kitchen. This begins with a lunchtime Microsoft Digital Literacy Curriculum course for Year Nine Students which then progresses to the Microsoft Office Specialist courses available to Year 10 students after school. With Pam’s guidance, and with the support of Microsoft training and certification specialists Prodigy Learning, many students leave the school already qualified as Microsoft Specialists, including some at Expert level, in Word, Excel and PowerPoint.

‘It all comes back to the infrastructure, having an accredited Microsoft Academy on campus,’ says Associate Principal Alan Stevens, who drives the programme at senior leadership level. He emphasises the global reach of the Academy programme.

‘A GCSE in ICT is, in the end, an English qualification. But a Microsoft qualification is globally recognised – a standard that’s transferable anywhere in the world.’

Student voice

The headline aim is to enhance the students’ employability, and there will surely be other, broader benefits in terms of confidence and the transfer of skills into other areas. So, to find out whether the students were tuned in to the significance of what they were achieving, we sampled student opinion with a brief questionnaire.

All provided thoughtful replies, and the most immediate conclusion is that the students are well aware that they are acquiring skills which have considerable international value. Adam, for example, says,

‘The Microsoft qualifications are globally recognised and I have no doubt they will help me to get a job.’ And from Tom we have, ‘It adds another qualification to my CV which shows specialist skills.’

The sessions are held after school and I wondered how students felt about working in their own time.

Opinions on that were mixed. Some were motivated less by the work than by the qualification.

‘It would not be my first choice of entertainment,’ was Adam’s diplomatic response. However, he went on,

‘It certainly isn’t boring’.

And another student, Tom, came down firmly on the positive aspects.

‘I enjoyed the work, mainly because of the group I was in. We worked together learning new skills.’

Lois was of the same mind,

‘It is enjoyable overall. By doing it with your friends you can help each other and learn more things.’

And Josh paid tribute to trainer Pam Kitchen,

‘The instructor we had was very easy to get along with and helped us whenever an issue came along.’

And, Josh added. There were extra privileges.

‘We also got tea and biscuits.’

Bearing in mind that not all these students will go on to technological careers, I was interested to discover whether they thought the courses had more general benefit either across the curriculum or in their lives beyond. On reflection that may not have entirely been a fair question, because these are Year 10 students with more immediate priorities. Even so, there was good evidence that the students are able to use their expertise across the curriculum – becoming adept at formatting and presenting their homework and coursework in a range of subjects.

Then there were those who, like Josh, were looking further ahead, foreseeing a need for ICT skills in almost any area of work and life.

‘I haven’t directed my path towards an IT career but the skills will help with paper work and writing up reports for a potential career as an officer in the military.’

Emma thinks along the same lines,

‘In any job you need to make documents and presentations and the skills I’ve learned will help me make professional-looking presentations.’

It’s fairly clear, too, that there are ‘softer’ skill benefits, to do with learning beyond the curriculum, in a different way, with different people. Increased confidence and pride in achievement is in the equation too. The young people themselves may not always realise this, although as we’ve seen some mentioned the enjoyment of learning with friends. Adam, however, made this quite significant observation.

‘The training programme has also increased my ability to learn online, because the concept was new to me at first and possibly other subjects could follow.’

It’s pretty clear to me that by having an on-site Microsoft Academy, producing well qualified and highly employable young people, Sawtry is providing a fine example that could be followed by other schools. The resources and support are readily available, and the reward is to see willing youngsters gaining a highly usable and marketable set of skills, underscored by globally recognised qualifications.