A new and fast-growing school supports its vision for learning by making full use of Office 365 to create an ‘anytime, anywhere’ collaborative space. By doing so it also drastically reduces the need for on-site storage, and creates a device-agnostic environment that allows its stock of Surface tablets to be supplemented by a ‘bring your own device’ policy.

Sandymoor School in Runcorn, Cheshire – a secondary Free School founded by local community action – opened in September 2012 with 19 students. Currently there are 110 students in Years 7, 8 and 9, grouped within the school as Foundation 1 and Foundation 2. The school is temporarily housed in a collection of single-storey prefabricated buildings. A new building with accommodation for 900 students will open in September 2014.

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An Ofsted inspection in January 2014 judged the school Good, with Outstanding leadership and management.

I had not been at Sandymoor long before I realised that something really interesting is happening within its no-nonsense prefab walls. Under the leadership of Principal Andrew Green-Howard, a strong vision is taking shape of how young people can learn together collaboratively and prepare themselves for what lies ahead. And I’d say that Microsoft, with Microsoft partner Civica, can be proud of how they are supporting that, particularly by the imaginative deployment of Office 365 to cover both administrative and learning aspects of the school.

‘The reason I’m so excited about Office 365,’ says Andrew Green-Howard, ‘Is that we can take everything we do in school and where absolutely possible put it in the cloud.’

Paul Hart, the Civica e-Learning Consultant who worked with Sandymoor on their Office 365 implementation was in tune with Andrew’s vision from the start, before even the temporary building existed.

‘He had high expectations for staff and students in terms of the amount of work that would be needed to make the online learning work. Of course there was the benefit of the fact that the school was starting from scratch, and schemes of work would incorporate ICT from an early stage, rather than appearing later as a bolt-on.’

It’s clear that Andrew sees Office 365 as a shared and managed workspace for the whole school community – students, staff, parents, governors. So students and teachers, for example, use online versions of Word and other Office applications so that they have anytime, anywhere access, including the ability to work in the cloud from home whether or not they have Office installed there. He talks about the need to achieve ‘agnosticism’ with technology, by which he means that whatever system a school chooses should be available anywhere, any time, with any device. Office 365, he believes, is the only effective way of achieving that.

I talked to deputy principal and leader of learning Emma Simpson about how that works for her as a mathematics teacher working with mixed ability groups. Essentially, she uses SharePoint Online to set up sites for her five maths classes. Each has packages of work at different levels, with links to teacher-prepared explanatory video. Children log on to the maths site for their class, using one of the school’s 50 Surface RT tablets, or a device of their own, and go to the appropriate set of tasks, continuing with the support of the teacher and a teaching assistant, Says Emma,

‘This allows me the freedom to give one-to-one support, and the videos I’ve provided mean there’s no dead time while they wait for me. They help each other, too of course.’

This way of working, she says, helps children with special needs. (The school has an above average proportion of children with SEN)

‘They do their work online and share it with me, so I can give close support at each stage.’

The overall effect, she says ‘Breaks down barriers to learning – and children know intuitively how to use it, because it’s similar to what they already know, such as Facebook.’

The same barrier-removing strategy is seen in the way the classrooms are set out for group working, with twin digital projectors creating a sense of ‘learning all around. Emphasising this, there is no ‘front of the class’ focus, so teachers can work from anywhere in the room with tablets or laptops linked to the projectors.

Emma told me, too, about the way she and Andrew are encouraging staff to collaborate online, particularly through the sharing of documents in OneDrive.

‘They’re developed online – the Self Evaluation Form, policies, plans for educational visits. We rely on it quite heavily.’

Andrew Green-Howard echoes that, with a vivid description of a scenario that must be very familiar,

‘Doing it the old way, I’d create a document then email it to three people to ask for comments. They’d all work on it and I couldn’t until it came back. Then I’d collate it and now it’s a different document.’

Office 365 entirely transforms that process, he says,

‘Working on a shared version in OneDrive means everyone can see changes. It’s a proper online meeting space.’

All of that, though, as Andrew recognises, requires a change of mindset in the users, and each week there’s a staff CPD session devoted to the use of Office 365. I talked to IT manager Stuart Thow about that,

‘They are really taking to it, although it’s very different from what they had done before. But Andrew has a vision of everything in the cloud which is working well – it removes issues around backups and file storage.’

Stuart approves of the school’s Surface RTs, which were bought before he arrived.

‘It’s a cracking device, the boot-up time is fantastic, it’s simple to use with a familiar interface and it’s used in lots of ways – the camera for gathering evidence for example.’

Unsurprisingly, he adds, students are ahead of the game,

‘They use the online Microsoft packages on their tablets so they can log in at home.‘

Students are also to the fore when it comes to supporting Stuart, who is the school’s sole IT professional at the moment. A group of students are voluntary ICT prefects.

‘They help out in all kinds of ways,’ says Stuart, ‘In lessons, with students who have trouble with their tablets, setting up devices, managing updates, configuring. They’re a massive help and of course it’s good learning for them.’

Paul Hart of Civica had already alerted me to the high level of student engagement in IT support.

‘Make sure you don’t miss seeing the students taking ownership,’ said Paul. ‘That’s quite a rare thing in my experience. They do a lot of the top level IT admin and it does work incredibly well. And they have gained fantastic technical knowledge.’

After that I had to meet them so I had a talk – and a good school lunch – with James, Jonathon and Aaron, all in Year eight or nine,

‘The main thing we did was get our Surface tablets set up when they arrived,’ James told me. ‘All the trolleys, cables and everything, added Jonathon. ‘Some days we’re here late after school.’

They described various ‘rescue’ missions – restoring a PC that seemed to have lost its operating system, helping teachers with Office Online basics, and showing how to link a laptop to the projectors in the classroom.

All of them were users of Office 365 at home as well as at school.

‘Sometimes if I want to change something I can just edit on my phone,’ said James.

Aaron appreciates the home-school link with his teachers.

 ‘If you’ve stuck with homework you can email them and they will usually email you back during the same weekend.’

Sandymoor is still in its early stages. The new building awaits a few hundred yards away, already looking impressive, and within weeks of inhabiting it, the temporary home will be a series of photographs in a scrapbook. There’s strong anticipation of the hugely expanded potential of the new school. At no point, though has there been any sense of marking time, waiting for it to arrive. Rather, there’s a strong feel of foundations being laid – not just in terms of ICT, but in the development of attitudes, standards, behaviour and the quality of teaching and learning. Andrew Green-Howard has been given an opportunity, and a solemn duty, that comes to few headteachers, and he’s clearly determined to make the most of the one and not fail in the other.

But let Aaron, of Year eight, have the last word.

‘What’s good about this school is that it involves us and educates us and gives us responsibility – and helps us if we have problems.’

I guess most parents would settle for that for their children.