By Maureen McTaggart

Bristol Brunel AcademyICT a specialism at Bristol Brunel AcademyAccording to The Times, Armando Di-Finizio, head of Bristol Brunel Academy, one of the first Building Schools for the Future (BSF) schools, thinks schools “could be led up the wrong path by IT experts” and that millions of pounds are wasted on their "white elephant technology”. However, the speakers’ transcript from the Westminster Education Forum, where he gave his “Building schools for the future – challenges ahead” presentation, gives a different picture.

His introduction reads: “Two years on we have definitely, without a doubt, benefited from BSF, and there have been a lot of lessons learned.” (And one of Brunel's complaints, about wireless technology, is already being solved elsewhere, and in Bristol – see this Paul Hiscox article).

Instead of The Times article's comprehensive negativity about the government’s £45 billion BSF school building programme in general and classroom ICT provisions in particular, Armando Di-Finizio reveals a thoughtfully weighed up and balanced explanation of the benefits and lessons learned from the BSF process. And a statement from Bristol BSF ICT supplier, Northgate Education, points out that key decisions about networking, a key element of the coverage, were taken way before Mr Di-Finizio's arrival at Brunel Academy.

In the Westminster Education Forum transcript of his presentation (reproduced in full below) Mr Di-Finizio explains that he came to Bristol Brunel after the local authority had already designed it. His first impression was of a beautiful, spacious building “that would do things to raise attainment”, but he did question whether it was really answering the challenges of 21st Century learning.

“Was it really challenging that notion of challenging teachers? We are in an age now when the teachers don’t have a monopoly on information,” he says. “There is a need for teachers, but there is a need for teachers to recapture why they are professionals and that’s about pedagogy and that’s about facilitating learning. The first thing I saw when I walked into the building was tables and chairs all in straight rows, classrooms next to each other and that’s the negative kind of view of it to start with, but that’s what I saw.”

'One size doesn’t fit all, but one empty shell maybe fits all'

Mr Di-Finizio strongly believes there should be adaptability in buildings because a school community needs to be able to grow in them. This way, he says, the massive costs that result when you want to change something like an IT room, especially when a school is trapped into a managed service contract that has not been well thought out.
“We do need to be able to grow in them [buildings] and perhaps that does mean one size doesn’t fit all, but one empty shell maybe fits all, and the way we can adapt that easily without the huge costs that are incurred in this programme.

“There are massive costs when you want to change something like an IT room because of the contract you are in. Maybe we need to look at that, how do we simplify that? There has got to be much more opportunities for independent advice allowing people to come in and look at things, taking a step back. And that is difficult when you are embroiled in it.

“There needs to be that ability and, I would argue that perhaps Partnership for Schools (PfS) or the BSF programme or whatever, maybe do need to lend a hand in terms of saying, ‘well look, this is a possible way’ to add more guidance that way.”

He concedes that there have been problems with ICT, the one area in the school that has been difficult, and advises school heads need to have back up plans. Brunel Academy he says was designed to be completely wireless and went for all the “gimmicks and gizmos” under a plan agreed by the local authority that would provide everyone with a PDA. At the last minute desktop computers were put in instead.

'I have yet to see a school that works really effectively wirelessly'

“I have yet to see a school that works really effectively wirelessly. We have just gone against the ICT contract, we have been trapped in the contract, which we have not enjoyed, and now got probably one of the most powerful wireless systems in the country, we have been told. It’s still not enough.”

De-Finizio would like to see schools designed for students, not for teachers, because “the more we continue to do that, the less opportunities the students have to develop good habits. Allowing them freedoms, allowing them freedom to go around, allowing them to fly when they can, which technology provides nowadays.”

Furthermore he says there should be a balance between the ‘wow’ factor and the cost of functionality, and schools should always be asking questions. Questions such as is it worth having expensive card-swiping mechanisms or fingerprinting if the teacher still has to do a register. “You can be really led up the wrong way by IT gurus," he adds. "There are lots of them out there, all well meaning. But you have got to keep your head on your shoulders.”

When the teachers and pupils moved into the Academy they thought the building would take off and it would be a rebirth for them. In reality attainment has been raised but Di-Finizio says they could quite easily lose that and warns teachers to never forget that “beauty is never more than three weeks old”.

“Very quickly the kids started getting into habits and started finding nooks and crannies. You cannot let them forget how lucky they are and how important it is for them and their children. We do so many assemblies, never letting them forget because it does raise attainment that way. I am quite adamant about that, but you must work at it all the time, the building won't do it itself”.

ICT supplier Northgate issues statement on wireless at Bristol Brunel

Northgate Managed Services was quick to clarify aspects of the article in The Times, and to correct "inaccuracies". It demonstrates the complexities now inherent in running maaged service and other contracts for new schools. This is the full statement:

"Wireless network

  1. "Bristol Brunel was not designed to be a fully wireless school.  In line with BECTA guidance, wireless technologies complement the wired infrastructure in schools and are not intended to replace them.  In addition BBA chose desktop rather than laptop devices for both staff and students prior to the ICT managed service commencement.
  2. "The Cisco wireless network installed by Northgate in Bristol Brunel and across the other 4 BSF schools in Bristol is fully functional and is being extensively used in other schools across the country.
  3. "Bristol Brunel Academy chose to purchase the Xirrus wireless network in October 2009.  This system was not designed, installed nor is it supported by Northgate.  However, Northgate is working with Brunel to assist in technical difficulties which the school is experiencing with their system.

"E-registration and Access Control

  1. "E-registration Access control is provided to schools across the Bristol BSF programme.
  2. "Access control is part of the Facilities Management  provision and is not part of the ICT Managed Service.
  3. "E-registration was fully tested and passed user acceptance testing (UAT) as part of that process.
  4. "BBA have chosen not to use the E-registration system nor have Northgate received any requests from the school regarding adoption of this part of the service.

"It is Northgate’s understanding that teachers in BBA are using the Capita SIMS Lesson Monitor product for registering pupils and not a paper register as stated in the article."

 

A key issue in the Bristol Brunel Academy article is wireless networking. And this has emerged as a problem for many schools as they have scaled up their networking and increased the number of devices on their networks. With mobile technology playing a bigger role in schools the problem is likely to increase unless schools and suppliers give it careful attention.

Ironically, Bristol City Council's ICT support section, which does not officially support ICT in local BSF projects, has spent some time addressing wireless issues for city primary and secondary schools – with its schools already enjoying success. And it is confident that the strategic analysis of school needs that it has developed can be used to identify the appropriate technology for any school, whether it is an older school going through remodelling (one of the most challenging situations) or a new-build. (An article by Bristol City Council's senior schools IT officer Paul Hiscox's on "How to avoid woeful wifi" teases out the wifi issues for school leaders on the National College's Future website.)

 

More information

The Building Schools Exhibition and Conference 2010 (BSEC 2010) takes place in Excel, London, February 24-25

"School capital investment – getting our house in order", blog by Ty Goddard on The Centre for School Design website

More on Northgate's managed services for schools on its YouTube Web channel.

The BBC's Rory Cellan-Jones on Bristol Brunel Academy and BSF.

The full transcript of Armando Di-Finizio's presentation:

"Building schools for the future - challenges ahead", Armando Di-Finizio, Principal, Bristol Brunel Academy
"Hi. We have benefited a lot from the BSF programme, without a doubt, there has been a lot of benefit. We were the first school to open under it and there has been a lot of lessons learned. Two years on, we have definitely, without a doubt, benefited from it and I will talk about some of those benefits, but also some of the lessons we have actually learned in this.

"The first one really, what is 21st Century learning? We are in this Building Schools for the Future programme and my view of it at the moment, my first thoughts when I walked into the building was, you know it was a beautiful building, it was really spacious, it would do things to raise attainment, but was it really answering what 21st Century learning is. Was it really challenging that notion of challenging teachers really, because slightly disagreeing with you in terms of needing teachers.

"We are in an age now when the teachers don’t have a monopoly on information, and I know when libraries started, that reduced that. But what it does, there is a need for teachers, but there is a need for teachers to recapture why they are professionals and that’s about pedagogy and that’s about facilitating learning and I think what happens, when I walked into the building, what happened, the first thing I saw was tables and chairs all in straight rows, classrooms next to each other and that’s the negative kind of view of it to start with, but that’s what I saw.

"We came in as an academy late in the day, so it was already designed by the Local Authority, but it was classrooms in boxes with teacher’s desk at the front. Now does that challenge the profession? Because inner city schools have been struggling now for years to raise attainment and we are succeeding in one view of it in the sense that we are raising what the Government view is raising attainment in terms of we are raising the grades. But you know I am a veteran of two academies and we play the tricks and play the games to get the grades up, we all do.

"We work really hard and we work systematically with every child and they get the grades and it is great, they have got a passport for life, but does that passport really....do they use that passport, do they have the aspirations or the confidence or the wherewithal to use all the new technology, the new ways of kind of... the new way that life is now in the 21st Century, do they have the capacity to do that, and I would argue they don’t.

"And so we should be challenging and I think the BSF schools should be challenging that all the time and not just assuming that it is going to be the same, and I would want to see a lot more of that. I would want to see the schools designed for students, not for teachers, because at the end of the day we, all of us, work within a time table framework that is on grids, that sends a student from one room to another room, to another room, with teachers going to a certain place at a certain time telling the students what to do when to do it. And the more we continue to do that, the less opportunities the students have to develop good habits. Allowing them freedoms, allowing them freedom to go around, allowing them to fly when they can, which technology provides nowadays. So we should be looking more at the school around the needs of the students, not having the teacher at the front and so on.

"So flexibility there. We met with an issue there straight from the beginning. What happens then when..... you know, an academy comes along and we are all told to transform and change things, what happens when you come into conflict with another group who have designed it in a different way. We do need adaptability in buildings, we do need to be able to grow in them and perhaps that does means one size doesn’t fit all, but one empty shell maybe fits all, and the way we can adapt that easily without the huge costs that are incurred in this programme. Massive costs when you want to change something like an IT room or something, there’s massive costs there because of the contract you are in. Maybe we need to look at that, how do we simplify that.

"I’ll skip a bit of this, I will go through it quickly. Architects, contractors and that, everyone has a different agenda, you know we have got aesthetics, we have got contractors with costs, staff with their own needs, the Local Authority have got their agenda and so on. There has got to be much more, I think, opportunities for independent advice allowing people to come in and look at things, taking a step back. And that is difficult when you are embroiled in it. There needs to be that ability and almost, I would argue that perhaps Partnership for Schools or the BSF programme or whatever, maybe do need to lend a hand in terms of saying, well look, this is a possible way to add more guidance that way.

"I’ll not spend too long on that either, I mean that is so important. If we are not consulting with our stakeholders as well when we are going in. There was some of that but there wasn’t enough in terms of the curriculum with us, looking at the kind of the hopes and fears and so on with the students, we didn’t do enough of that. I think that’s a really important one, to get the stakeholders on board so it becomes a community site, that way it will succeed.

"The ICT. We suffered with the ICT that’s the one area of the school that....it’s been very, very difficult and you do need your back up plans. The school was designed to be completely wireless, it went for all the gimmicks and gismos and it was going to be fantastic. I have yet to see a school that works really effectively wirelessly. We have just gone against the contract, we have been trapped in the contract, which we have not enjoyed, the ICT contract, and now got probably one of the most powerful wireless systems in the country, we have been told. It’s still not enough. At the last minute computers were put in, were designed and put in to compensate for that, but the school was going to be wireless with everyone with a PDA at the time.

"So what I am saying there at the bottom is, get the balance between the ‘wow’ factor, the cost of functionality, because you can be really led up the wrong way by IT gurus, there’s lots of them out there, all well meaning, but you have got to keep your head on your shoulders, is it worth having card swiping mechanisms or fingerprinting....well card swiping, it costs a lot of money, is it worth it if the teacher still has to do a register. You know you just have to ask these sorts of questions.

"And then just finally, really. It has raised attainment for us, it definitely has, without a doubt, but it could quite easily lose that very quickly because what you have to do is never forget that you know beauty is never more than three weeks old. When we moved into the City Academy, we had been an academy for two years, we moved in and we thought the building would take off and it would be a rebirth for us. Very quickly the kids started getting into habits and started finding nooks and crannies, you cannot let them forget how lucky they are and how important it is for them and their children and so on. We do so many assemblies, never letting them forget because it does raise attainment that way. I am quite adamant about that, but you must work at it all the time, the building won't do it itself."
Armando Di-Finizio’s PowerPoint presentation can be downloaded from the following link:
http://www.westminsterforumprojects.co.uk/forums/slides/ArmandoDi-Finiziofeb10.pdf


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