John Galloway crosses a social divide to discover that ICT is driven by results there too
The coalition government is proposing to give schools more curriculum freedom and greater responsibility for deciding what technology they need for their teachers to teach and their pupils to learn.
These are freedoms that schools in the fee-paying sector have always had, so what difference do they bring to the levels of ICT provision, and how should it used. A visit to Harrow School, one of the most prestigious of private schools (alumni include numerous former prime ministers and even kings), revealed some interesting insights.
Although subject to quite different drivers to their counterparts in the state sector, the decisions on resourcing and facilities might be familiar, although the scale of investment somewhat different. Students start at Harrow School in year 9, the so-called "shell" year, and have one lesson a week of ICT on their timetables, not dissimilar to many of their peers in state schools. However, they don't get the same breadth of coverage, either prior to arrival or once accepted.
Students might arrive with fairly low skill levels, as these are not part of the assessment undertaken for Common Entrance – the gateway exam for acceptance at many of the more prestigious private schools – so ICT may not have been a previous subject of study. Of course, many will have quite high-level skills, perhaps having taught themselves to mix music, make games and connect with friends, but not necessarily in the programs most useful for study and productivity, such as MS Office.
To address this, and establish a baseline of skills, the school requires all students to take the Harrow School ICT Test, which is roughly equivalent to the ECDL (European Computer Driving Licence) and assessed similarly through on-screen simulations. It is a benchmark which all boys are expected to reach. They also all follow the Kaz touch typing course.
However, despite achieving such levels of competence, ICT doesn't figure significantly in lessons after this. Neither GCSE nor A Level ICT are offered at the school, as they are not seen as sufficiently academically rigorous to support progression to the top universities. As acceptance at the school is dependent on being able to achieve three A grades at A Level, along with other criteria including achievement in other fields and qualities such as leadership, the curriculum has been designed to deliver this goal.
'All teaching rooms have projectors, and about half have whiteboards'
This doesn't mean technology is sidelined. All the teaching rooms (around 80) have projectors, and about half have whiteboards (installed as teachers request them, with Classics leading the way) and there's some good practice in evidence. In geography, for instance, a combination of an interactive whiteboard and Google Earth brings greater understanding to the process of glaciation. But very few of the teaching rooms have computers for pupils to use.
When this is required classes go into departmental ICT suites, with most departments having at least one. This is largely for research, or writing-up purposes, as the IGCSE courses the students follow don't have a coursework component. This can create situations that might seem unusual in state schools, as Nick Marchant, head of academic ICT, explains: "Maths no longer use Excel." Students either use programmable calculators, or pen and paper, depending on what is permitted in their exams.
Despite this, ICT tools are found in every department. The design technology rooms have CAD/CAM (computer-aided design and manufacture) machines including laser cutters, a CNC router and printers for mugs and t-shirts. Half a dozen newly installed Macs are available in the art studio, and there are dedicated music technology facilitites. There are also computers for off timetable activities such as film-making.
Not everything is completely up to the minute. In the photography classroom there are 14 machines, predominantly PCs but some Macs, with several showing their age but all loaded with Photoshop, an essential for the A-Level course some students follow. The facilities also include a studio set-up with screen, lights, and a number of digital SLRs.
myphotobook website is also used to manage portfolios.The computers are on benches around the edges of the room, while dominating the middle is a large, high table covered in students' scrapbooks full of print-outs and pages torn from magazines, all annotated in pencil. However, these are used as stimuli for a project on "What makes a good photograph?" that requires students to create an animated PowerPoint presentation with background music. The
As the 826 students are all boarders the school provides each of them with a computer for after-school use, meaning there are more than 1,500 machines in total, more than half on the 'night side,' with a staff of seven technicians to keep them running. "We provide the kit so they don't need to bring their own," explains director of ICT, Christopher O'Mahony. However, he is realistic enough to recognise the prevalence of devices such as smartphones and iPads: "In a couple of years the kids will have their own devices; the school will provide the infrastructure and the kids will provide the machines."
Another development he foresees is a move to paperless systems, where students and teachers share resources and work online. Already the school uses Blackboard as a VLE (virtual learning envirnment), and has the iSAMS system in use for regular reporting to parents.
Harrow embraces social networking tools, including Skype
Unlike the majority of its state counterparts Harrow embraces social networking tools. As 15 per cent of students come from overseas, Skype is rolled out for everyone to use. And on arrival at the school new boys have a personal session to check their Facebook privacy settings (and even to set an account up if necessary) to keep in touch with friends and family. Access is allowed for an hour before and an hour after prep (preparation sessions) on weekdays, and more generously at weekends.
It is this ability to be agile, to respond quickly to developments in this area that Christopher O'Mahoney believes marks the difference between provision in the state and private sectors. "The school doesn't drive technological innovation, but it needs to be involved in interoperability and appropriate implementation of these technologies," he says. Which is one of the reasons he is working on a policy for connecting personal iPads to the school network, rather than have students going through any of the unsecured networks some of the local households unwittingly provide. This will also require an extension of the current acceptable use policy.
Christopher O'Mahony identifies a number of factors involved in moving ICT forward in the school These include the expectations of students, parents and staff, financial pressures (although with a budget of almost half a million pounds per year this is a pressure many schools would embrace warmly) and inspection bodies such as Ofsted which judged Harrow "outstanding". However, from the outside looking in, it appears that, just as in the state sector, the greatest impetus for the use of ICT – or not – comes from the pressure to achieve results. Outcomes are paramount: ICT improves them.
John Galloway works as advisory teacher for ICT/SEN and inclusion in Tower Hamlets, London, and as a freelance writer and consultant. He is the author of Harnessing Technology for Every Child Matters and Personalised Learning and runs his own blog.