How can one school be the tech hub for 64 others? talked to its IT director Lee Jepson, aged 28

When the incoming Coalition Government scrapped the Building Schools for the Future (BSF) programme back in 2010 the decision was accompanied by a tide of media slurs to justify it.

However, in time it has become clear that they are not borne out by evidence: there have been some remarkable successes. Noel-Baker School, a 1,600-pupil former BSF school in Derby hasn't just transformed its own use of technology for learning, it also manages (in partnership with Dell) the technology needs of 64 other local schools — seven secondaries along with primaries and special schools.

It's an extraordinary achievement and one that shows a successful route to sustainable management of school ICT from the first, faltering and often controversial steps of BSF's 'managed services' concept. And the growth continues. The latest school to come under its ICT wing is Granville Sports College in Derbyshire, and Noel-Baker is due to become an academy within the LEAD Academy Trust.

'A fantastic opportunity for what is still a young team'

Lee JepsonLee Jepson partnering with Dell at BETT 2017It's a huge challenge for the 23-strong team led by Lee Jepson (pictured right), the 28-year-old director of the then Noel-Baker IT Services (now LEAD IT Services). The company was set up by Lee Jepson to manage the school's ICT when he was just 18. “The new-build was a fantastic opportunity for what is still a young team to build up a highly responsive service to support our learners and teachers with the most effective technologies they need,” he said. 

“Although most of our customers are in education, we are also available to help charities and businesses across the East and West Midlands. And we can expect more growth generated by us joining the LEAD Trust.”

His team covers a huge range of technologies, mainly Windows, Apple and Android, and an increasing number of mobile devices, from Apple iPads to Google Chromebooks and Microsoft Surfaces, all requiring dependable, fast broadband and wireless networks. Nothing stays still, and this summer his team installed more than 300 wifi points across their schools. It’s an exciting moment for both providers and users as wifi is the crucial key for true mobility.

First task as high-speed broadband network

As a part of their growth strategy the first task they identified was to create a high-speed broadband network. The best value offering was with Virgin Media, complete with filtering, safeguarding tools, email and domain management. “Schools were paying over the odds for a broadband solution that was letting them down, said Lee. "Many services that Microsoft offer are free and we ensure schools do not pay for these either, while developing further use of Office 365 and Google Apps for education”.

Some primaries even use Amazon’s Kindles for literacy work. Besides encouraging a lifelong love of reading – “the students love them” – they are also saving a small fortune on photocopying. Management has been relatively easy and they are charged overnight. The children are always on task and can’t get into ‘dodgy’ websites.

While these 64 schools might not have the same edtech (educational technology) in common they do share the same priority – learning and teaching. And that's the key focus for Lee Jepson and his team.

"The driver for us has been finding out what teachers need, rather than just what they have been given," he explained. "We have to show them what can be provided for them from a technology perspective that can help them drive their lessons forward and help increase students’ engagement. A little bit of training for half a day doesn’t help enough if you want to avert the danger that potentially helpful technologies could just stay in corners unused.

“We have worked with staff from a one-to-one perspective of laptops in every classroom but also which departments will tablets work in, and should they be Apple, Windows or Android. We piloted a few from each vendor to try them out before we bought them, to see what would work best.

'All sorts of possibilities — depending on the learning and teaching'

Noel-Baker girls“Take for example our learning resource centre. Any department can use that room, it depends on what their needs are – trolley of laptops, trolley of tablets and some thin clients – allowing them to be more diverse in their lessons. 

“They could have one group of students using iPads for taking photos while another is creating a storyboard in Windows 10 and using the software on virtual machines. There are all sorts of possibilities; it just depends on the learning and teaching.”

The strategy is to strategically position technology to support the curriculum and assessment based on need, and to ensure staff are involved to see that this happens. It must have been an intense learning journey although it’s hard to believe that from Lee Jepson’s calm demeanour and understated delivery. 

Students and teachers now have 24/7 access to technology if they need it. “That seems to be the way ICT is going; day and night, after school, they want to access it," he added. “That’s something we have always tried to champion, to make sure there is always access wherever they are, whether they are off-site using tablets or whether they are on site using standalones or laptops they can get on it 24/7.”

The most obvious trend has been towards mobile technology and now the digital dust seems to be settling following the dramatic emergence of tablets with Apple’s iPad. The primaries supported by Noel-Baker tend to favour Apple’s iPads while secondaries tend to opt for laptops and Windows tablets, usually with detachable keyboards. 

Of course this has to be supported by a move to cloud services like Office365 and Google Apps where the broadband is sufficient, requiring yet another level of expertise. But it also brings new opportunities like family access to school systems where this has not previously been available.

All sixth-formers issued with laptops 

Noel-Baker has been carefully building its sixth form – there is a lot of competition from neighbouring schools – and one of the attractions for students is that they are all issued with laptop computers which they keep when they leave. The project started with an intake of 100 students. 

Noel-Baker boysThere has also been a shift towards cloud-based solutions and services like Kerboodle (OUP’s assessment service) and education testing software, TestBase. There is clear recognition of the need to be ready for the eventual move to online examinations. 

Backup and recovery was a focus for 2016. A cost-effective solution was required for all schools. After months of testing it was decided to go with Microsoft Azure services. Using data centres and management reporting for schools ensured compliancy for fully recoverable operations.

“Over the years this has pushed us towards having more and more devices for students to use for exams,” added Lee Jepson. “Instead of having the big halls with tables, we have IT suites that are completely locked down, with divider partitions so they are ready for some online examinations from the second years up."

There is also work going on to develop support for apprenticeships and vocational courses. “Our top priority is getting teachers comfortable with the technology – whether it’s whiteboard, iPads, visualisers or anything else – before they use it with the students, he explained. “If it doesn’t work when they are using it with students they get put off, and the students are put off and they  may never want to use it again. 

Students offered apprenticeships in ICT support 

"As part of our future planning and to help students who may want to work in the field of ICT Support we have taken on many ex-students from our schools and offered them apprenticeships. Many have completed their apprenticeships and are still with us.

“By providing a familiar environment for ex-students it eases them into the world of working and learning, and it gives them the opportunity to learn and grow with our existing technical support team.”

The team uses NetSupport software in classrooms so that the system and websites are appropriately locked down and teachers can have insights into exactly how their students are using devices whenever that’s necessary. It’s easy to use and has proved popular: “it’s hard to know what they are doing unless you have these sort of options in place.” NetSupport even has a facility to monitor the incidence of links to extremist sites.

The agreement with NetSupport ensures that all schools using LEAD IT Services have appropriate networking and safeguarding tools. Additionally, ESET for anti-virus, firewall and encryption, makes certain that all schools are safeguarded.

It also helps that Lee Jepson is a governor at the Royal School for the Deaf in Derby and at a local primary school. He feels it has given him a wider perspective and helps with future-proofing – matching schools’ emerging needs with developments in technology. And that’s where the relationship with Dell comes in.

Dell partnership means the team can handle any problems 

So how does the partnership with Dell work? In the language of the IT industry, it has enabled the Noel-Baker team to become an “end-to-end solution provider”, ie the team can handle anything from the previously mentioned technologies through open source and Ubuntu to school LEGO studios — the whole breadth of technology for education. Team members regularly visit other schools, many of which have their own technicians so the learning is continuous.

“If there’s a technology problem that we are having trouble with we can be certain that our friends at Dell will be able to help us find a solution,” explained Lee Jepson. “That’s where the value of a partner like Dell comes in – if it’s something that’s a challenge to you it’s not a challenge to them.” Sometimes Dell’s products are used and sometimes those of other companies, as with Chromebooks. These have tended to be Dell’s or Samsung’s.

There have been clear advantages for the range of schools covered – scale, consistency and ease of management. The first thing a new school to the family undergoes is an ICT audit before reviewing all the options. And just as the Noel-Baker team is always learning from its partner, Dell is learning more and more about the needs of schools and learning and teaching.

John BaileyJohn Bailey (pictured left), education director wtih Dell EMC UK commented: “Dell EMC is committed to helping students develop the knowledge and skills they need to learn and succeed in an increasingly digital world and a globally competitive workforce. With computers, mobile devices, thin clients and cloud platforms available for use in the classroom, students can access more information on the web and enhance the learning experience. For teachers, it offers unrivalled flexibility and allows them to use multiple platforms, including online courses, videos, ebooks and podcasts in lessons.

Bringing innovative solutions into the learning environment is integral to extending the benefits of higher functionality, increased flexibility and productivity to helping students achieve more and lay the necessary foundations for their continued success in education and work.”

There’s no doubt that this partnership will face continuing challenges, from curriculum change too. The latest included the new computing curriculum something that Dell could also contribute to, for example in the area of coding.

One of the most important things is that the team can always demonstrate the increasing advantages of technology for both school management and the teaching and learning. There’s no doubt that this is far easier when the systems are viewed as always-on and dependable by the whole school community.

Lee Jepson’s ultimate view is, “Whether you will be a carpenter, media expert or teacher, if you don’t have technology as part of your learning curriculum or learning path you are going to struggle going into the workplace.”

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Dell will be exhibiting at BETT 2017 and Lee Jepson and Dell EMC UK education director John Bailey will be on hand on the Dell stand (B330) to deal with schools' queries