Taking children to That London

Looking through the Gates of Buckingham Palace
Looking through the Gates of Buckingham Palace

I love my home city: Birmingham.

But I love London too, and whenever I go there, I can’t help feeling just a little parochial. It’s a great privilege to be able to take children to London and something that I’ve enjoyed doing over many years. Back when the O2 Arena was known as the Millenium Dome, I brought children down to experience what all the fuss was about.

London is so amazing, that you don’t even have to go into anything. A tube pass is all you need and you can spend the day boggled by Buckingham Palace, awed by the Houses of Parliament and stunned by the Tower of London.

I brought 6 children to BETT this year and aside from the ideas they’’ll be taking back to school council for future technology spending, they really enjoyed the whole travelling to and being in London.

Some of the group had not been on a train before (Birmingham is a very spread out city by English standards: the car and the bus reign supreme), but by the time we had finished the day we had travelled on ten trains.

Some of the groups had not seen a Palace Guardsmen in real life before, nor Big Ben, nor walked down the Mall. We did all those things as well as our visit to the technology show known as BETT.

I would love to take a whole class to London every year, but finances and time do not allow. Wouldn’t it be great though if every child had that opportunity, so they could find out all about their capital city, see the building in real life that they only normally see on Doctor Who and walk the same streets of those who make the decisions that shape their lives.

Yet many children in Birmingham never even travel to Birmingham City Centre, let alone London – is this an issue schools should address?

Chromebooks: the ideal device for the UK classroom

On Thursday at BETT, I spoke on the Google stand with the slightly contentiously titled talk, Chromebooks: the ideal device for the UK classroom.

Now I have to be clear: I think there is no ideal device for a classroom. In fact, I think the ideal classroom has multiple different devices: a mixed economy, or a device-agnostic approach as some like to call it.

Having said that, I believe the UK classroom is in a peculiar situation at the moment, and it’s a situation which lends itself to Chromebooks. Let me explain below, but first here are my slides:

The situation is this:

1. We live in austerity times. Less money has been paid into the education sector in recent years and while this may not have affected school budgets directly, it has affected central services. Schools find it harder now than ever to find speech therapists, social support, education psychologists, behaviour support, specialist subject support, and so on. This means that schools have to make a choice: invest in external support, or maintain internal staffing levels.

2. Not many people know it, but we have a growing bank of great research for what really works. The EEF teacher toolkit has listed some great research for the interventions that really make a difference in schools. What surprises me is that so few teachers know about it or pay much attention to it – at #tmBETT14 recently, when Oliver Quinlan spoke about it, I saw several tweets from people who hadn’t heard of it before. A second surprise is that digital technology is so far down the list – the consequence of this is that you’re far better off investing your resources in training your teachers to give effective feedback than your are investing in technology.

3. We have lots of change, so let’s keep what we can the same. Curricula are changing. Assessment regimes are changing. Teacher standards and performance management have changed. Entire schooling structures are changing with free schools and academy chains. This means we should keep what we can the same – why invest in radically different technology, when our teachers have already had so much change to deal with?

So summing this up: we don’t have much money; spending what we have on technology is probably a waste; changing things puts additional stress on to our teachers.

This is where Chromebooks come in

  • they are cheap. At under £200 each, a class set costs £6000 and support costs are less than £600 a year. The money you save on such a cheap solution can go into funding the interventions that actually make a difference.

  • teachers don’t have to learn anything to use them. Since Chromebooks just do the web – and everyone knows how to use that – learning to use them is not a huge CPD piece.

I have a load of other reasons for why Chromebooks are an amazing device for school but right there were my main two: they are cheap and they are easy. That means all staff in school can spend their time getting on with their main business, which is educating our children.

Save time on data and spend it on teaching

I really believe that efficient data analysis that takes the minimum amount of time helps everyone.

It always depresses me when the calculator comes out for working out averages on a set of data.

Yet there is such a focus on getting the data right, that sometimes double-checking it all can take over. Yes, the system might be inefficient, but it works and gets the right answers… Our children deserve better than that. The skilled teachers in our schools are there for doing skilled teaching: they shouldn’t be wasting their time on inefficient processes.

And here is where I make my admission: I use inefficient processes. I am comfortable with spreadsheets, so I use them – I do all my number crunching and contextual analysis in spreadsheets. Yet I have a super-powerful management information system in school. I know that it could do all the number crunching I need and more. But I’m not comfortable with it. One day, I will grow up. I just know it. And on that day, I will understand databases and be able to use them to make data work even better for my in school.

But for now I’ll have to be content with my countifs and my vlookups.

I’m speaking at #WeTweetEd at BETT this Thursday. Come along and contribute to the discussion on using data as best as we possibly can.

Good data processes have an impact on teaching and learning.

You can make really efficient data processes within school that don’t actually do anything.

Some senior leaders would laugh if you came into one of our pupil progress meetings. We hold them three times each year. In each meeting the headteacher, deputy and teacher come together to talk about each child’s progress in reading, writing and maths.

Much of the discussion arises from numbers on a sheet, but it is focused on the barriers each child faces and how, as a team, we might overcome those barriers. Sometimes that might involve a conversation between a senior leader and a parent; sometimes bringing in external professionals; sometimes the tweaking of some classroom practice.

I get the impression that at some schools, senior leaders are so concerned about the ‘big picture’ of what the data shows them, that they forget about the details. But the details are called children. And a school where children are just numbers on a sheet of paper is no school at all.

I have to admit, sometimes I can get a little task focused when I’m creating my latest uber-sheet: in this one, I tell myself, the data process will be so efficient it will hardly detract from our time at all.

It’s important to remember, that each number crunched, each set averaged, is just another tool to help teachers with their job: teaching.

I’m speaking at WeTweeted at BETT this Thursday – it would be great to have you there to contribute your thoughts on data too.

Good data requires a good person more than a good process

I’m speaking for a few minutes at WeTweetEd #5 at BETT on Thursday. The subject is on data, and I’m essentially going to say three things:

  1. Processes on data are only any good if they have an impact on teaching and learning.

  2. Efficient data analysis that takes the minimum amount of time helps everyone.

  3. Moderation should be treated as data’s beautiful bride, and not its jilted lover.

However, for now I’m going muse on this thought: it is more important to have a person in your school who is a good with data, than a good process for handling data.

The reason for this is that the amount of data we have to process each year increases. RAISEOnline gets larger and the emphasis on what kind of data is important changes.

Recent changes to curricula – EYFS, National Curriculm; and also to Special Educational Needs, means that new systems have had to be developed on an almost yearly basis. Yet the core process remains pretty constant:

  1. teachers assess where their children are at;

  2. we give these assessments numbers;

  3. we use maths to analyse the numbers so we can maintain a big picture of what is going on

  4. we target school resources appropriately, both at a classroom and a whole school level.

However because of almost yearly changes to the context of most school schools, the numbers change. And the contextual data changes. So a person is needed to manage these changes and make them work for each school.

I’ll give you an example:

In our last Ofsted we knew our school was good and we had the data to prove it. Even better, the teaching in the classrooms was so good it was almost irrefutable.

Almost.

The Ofsted inspector was looking for numbers that we didn’t quite have. Instead of in-year numbers, he wanted numbers that showed progress of the last year (i.e. from February to February instead of September to July).

It took me 6 hours and quite a bit of jiggering around with formulae to make the spreadsheet do what I wanted it to: the 363 calculations that would generate the 363 numbers the Ofsted inspector required. I learnt a lot about ‘countif’ functions that night. Without that spreadsheet, though, it would have taken a lot longer, probably 3 days, and we wouldn’t have got the data done in time.

Now Ofsted is an extreme example, but with changes and more changes to how we assess things, the tweaks that are needed to keep data processes working in a school could grind a school to a halt without the right person in place.

The education technology divorce

Who actually makes the education technology decisions in schools?

My authority runs a bus to BETT, the main trade show for education technology in the UK. I have to say I’m rather nervous about getting on the bus, because of who else might be on it. Having travelled to BETT a few times before and bumped into many attendees as I travel, I’m convinced that the majority of attendees from my part of the country are technicians and network managers. I haven’t met many teachers who go to BETT.

So who will make the decisions about future technology purchasing? Network managers or teachers?

I have to say at this point that I have a marvellous technician who works for me at my school. He is always on the look out to develop best practice and is keen to learn new stuff, not just to stick with what he already knows. But I’ve spoken to several teachers who have complained about their technicians or network managers – they complain that the network manager sets the rules about how to use the IT system. They decide what children can or can’t do. They decide the kind of software and hardware that children use.

My fear is that in many schools the technician, or the network manager, has become a barrier to good teaching. The expectation is that technology will be used across the curriculum, and from 2014 a new Computing Curriculum will come into place. Is there an teacher in each school who is ready for this? Ready to make decisions on how best to make it work for our children?

Education technology works best when the technology serves the education: when the tech makes the lessons better. This means that teachers and technicians need to work in partnership, but ultimately it is teachers who need to be empowered to make the decisions about how best to use technology to make a difference for their children. Without that a divide will develop that will result in teachers divorcing the technology from their teaching.