Thursday, 3 December 2009

Literacy Trust Technology and Literacy

Just read a fascinating piece of research from the National Literacy Trust about technology and literacy. ( The whole thing is well worth reading if you have interests in either technology and learning or the development of literacy in young people.

The Trust surveyed just over 3000 9-16 year olds and asked them a whole variety of questions about writing, technology and their own abilities with writing. About 20% of the youngsters were on free school meals and so the survey sample includes more of these kinds of young people than the national population. In other words the results probably don't just represent the views of a bunch of posh kids.

If the survey is accurate, technology is providing these young people with enormous opportunities to write that didn't exist when I was a child. '75% of young people said that they write regularly' (p. 4) in text messages, instant messages, in blogs and on social networking sites. After a quick survey of the staff here, (the other person in the office) it turns out that the only writing we did between the ages of 9-16 was at school or the painfully drawn out and tedious writing of thank you cards for birthday and xmas presents. It would be hard to argue, in the face of this research that technology is a force for harm in the development of literate young people.

The research states it finds 'a link between blogging and (self-reported) writing ability and enjoyment of writing' (p. 4) in the executive summary, but is careful to point out in the main body that 'it may just be the case that young people who have a blog have one because they enjoy writing' (p. 34). Indeed this is a problem for anyone trying to ascribe positive impacts for technology on attitudes or self-confidence from a survey such as this; the causal relationship could run either way.

The research shows a big gap between boys and girls in almost every dimension of the survey. The results show boys don't enjoy writing as much as girls, they ascribe more negative characteristics to writers and they rate themselves as worse at writing than girls. The fact that 'boys were more likely than girls to agree with statements that writing is boring (57% vs. 41%)' (p. 5) seems particularly important. It's hard not to think that this attitude is behind much of boys poorer performance than girls across a number of subjects. At my CLC we are exploring ways to increase engagement and enjoyment of writing using computer games. This research makes me think that this is a good thing to be doing.

Tuesday, 14 July 2009

Building Schools For the Future: Public Accounts Committee Report

This came out a while ago and I only just got around to reading it. Anyone wants to read the whole document can access it here. It is only a dozen or so pages.

The Committee outlines the strengths and weaknesses of the programme so far (as they see it). Reading the transcripts of the interviews with the head civil servant and the head of PfS (Partnership for Schools), (David Bell and Tim Byles respectively) it is clear that political allegiances affected attitudes. The labour members seem less critical than their Conservative counterparts.

The bits that held my attention on the train down to London are as follows:
  1. The plans for delivery were unrealistic. Even after a review and a rescheduling the Committee still thinks PfS have got an almost impossible target to complete by 2023. As they say 'poor planning has heightened expectations and created disappointment' p8.
  2. School leaders haven't had the support they need, they 'manage the transition and early operational stages without central support and often feel left to manage alone' p9.
  3. The LEP is the preferred procurement vehicle for each local authority going through BSF and it is a very new thing. It is important to know if it is value for money. The committee has this to say; 'Although on paper LEPs look like they might provide cost benefits it is too early to tell whether they will, and their value for money is unproven.' p10. And, 'only 14% of local authority BSF managers ... believed that their LEP would produce cost savings and only a quarter said that overall it was a good approach' p11. Tim Byles told the committee that 'if you talk to people once they become engaged in the project and in this way of delivery they tend to change their view very considerably'. I hope he doesn't mean that those who are against the LEP approach just don't understand it, but it would be easy to interpret his comments in this way.
  4. The Committee are generally positive about the contribution of PfS. They do say that PfS 'has focused insufficiently on achieving the intended benefits of operational LEPs and the intended educational outcomes in schools' p13. There are some eye-watering figures for funds expended on consultants, for example PfS paid KPMG £ 1.3 million over three years for the services of just one person (p20).
The report underlines some of the issues identified by earlier analyses of the BSF programme. Lack of support for school staff engaged in thinking through how to turn millions of investment in buildings and ICT into significant educational change, is my top concern. In my view, investment in people is the most effective way of transforming our schools. Judging by the actions of government this isn't a very widely shared point of view.

Thursday, 4 June 2009

School of the Future (SOF) Philadelphia

Back in 2005 (or perhaps 2004) I was in the audience at a very excited and self-congratulatory presentation about this planned new school that Microsoft was supporting. Lots of money and clever people were involved in the design and the impression I got was that we in the UK should be able to learn enormously from this visionary project.

The school opened in 2005 and after 3 years Microsoft got together a panel to look at how successful the endeavour has been. The answer is sadly - not very. The panel discussion is reported in eSchool News (well worth a look), here. You'll have to subscribe to read it all. It seems harsh that the writers of the eSchool News Report have entitled it School of the Future: Lessons in failure. The school is only three years old and obviously developing. The fact that Microsoft have been so open about the weaknesses of the project is to their great credit. That said, the issues the panel outline are very familiar to anyone involved in supporting schools make the most of their technology.
  1. People - '"We naively thought, I guess, that by providing a beautiful building and great resources, these things would automatically yield change. They didn't," said Jan Biros, associate vice president for instructional technology support and campus outreach at Drexel University and a former member of the SOF Curriculum Planning Committee.'
  2. Process - the school planners worked 'to design the underlying principles and goals for the school' using a Microsoft framework but '"Working within this framework often felt more like an academic exercise than a productive process," said Biros'
  3. People Development - 'The training that Microsoft gave teachers prior to the school's opening also was extremely limited, panelists said. Educators' participation in the project was confirmed only weeks before the school opened, and as a result, many educators could not adequately work the technology needed to enhance classroom learning.'
  4. Support - there 'was no dedicated technical support', all learning content was supposed to be supplied via wireless 'Yet educators frequently encountered problems accessing the internet, because the school's wireless connection often would not work.'
Thanks to Barry Phillips for pointing out the comments at the foot of the article where a couple of students have sprung to their school's defence. These couldn't be taken to articulate the views of the student body, but they do make for an interesting alternative point of view.

My experience makes me think that BSF planning seems much better than the process described here. There is an attention to detail regarding what actual stuff students and teachers will be using and how they will use it that the SOF preparations didn't achieve (if the panel report is accurate). I am not so sure that the professional development preparations are so much superior or that the ongoing sustainment costs are any better thought through. Happy to be corrected by those more closely involved.

Wednesday, 25 March 2009

Space Strategies for the New Learning Landscape

It takes a great deal of heavy duty stimulus before I can manage to have anything like an idea. It is testimony to the clarity and innovative thinking to be found in this piece from Educause that I found myself having a number of ideas even before I'd finished it.
It is an HE focused paper but has a great deal within of use to all who have any involvement or interest in the secondary schools rebuilding programme, BSF. You can download it from
The analysis of learning spaces that maps the specificity (spectrum from single-use to multi-use) against the formality (spectrum from informal/unscheduled to formal/scheduled) on the x and y axes of a graph was very thought-provoking. (page 2)

It is an analysis that I think would reveal unintended patterns within the space planning going on in some BSF projects. While secondary schools are going to need a large number of formal scheduled spaces, the new approaches to curriculum and learning do indicate a need for some informal and unscheduled spaces.

The author, Shirley Dugdale, advocates a 'Learning Landscape' approach to building design. This encompasses "the total context for students’ learning experiences and the diverse landscape of learning settings available today—from specialized to multipurpose, from formal to informal, and from physical to virtual." The goal is to "acknowledge this richness and maximize encounters among people, places, and ideas, just as a vibrant urban environment does." In HE students will learn most of their stuff outside the lecture theatre and seminar room, so the thinking makes a lot of sense in that environment. My understanding is that is what BSF is trying to help young people develop towards during their secondary school experience. If I'm right, then this paper should have some important insights for BSF.

To make life easy Shirley explains her top strategies for getting this done. The following ten are described in the main section of the paper.
"1. Analyze the whole campus as learning space.
2. Develop insights from user engagement.
3. Plan to support multiple types of learning.
4. Leverage space strategies to enable experimentation.
5. Leverage growth in hybrid courses to gain improved space utilization.
6. Seek strategic partnerships to develop informal learning space.
7. Consider diffuse vs. centralized distribution of functions.
8. Link space performance to learning assessment.
9. Develop workplace settings that foster learning organizations.
10. Recognize learning space beyond the campus."

These ideas stood out.
In relation to the first of these strategies Shirley asserts "In the future, space types are more likely to be designed around patterns of human interaction than around the specific needs of particular departments, disciplines, or technologies." Which in schools might mean, design in less of those single use spaces like science labs and more highly flexible rooms, because technology is making it easier to do experiment-type stuff with ICT in someones front room (perhaps only virtually but you get the drift). But if the spaces aren't specialised around content or subject based categories, what? Shirley thinks that the answer is "Multiple Types of Learning". She offers the following taxonomy.
  • "collaborative, with active learning and group work,
  • blended, with learning and other activities happening anywhere/anytime, enabled with mobile technology,
  • integrated and multidisciplinary,
  • immersive, with simulated or real-world experiences, and
  • hybrid, combining online with faceto-face learning activities, augmented with mixed-reality experiences."
For schools this means, I'd guess, that they need to ensure that the range of spaces they are planning allows for all of these learning experiences. That doesn't just mean the rooms, but also the spaces between them and around. For example she makes the following very clever observation "Food can be a powerful attractor for social learning, providing destinations for diverse campus groups to cross paths and connect. If these destinations are designed as compelling places, they can support learning discourse and the sharing of experiences, as well as strengthen community bonds." How many schools would consider the dining room as a learning space? They probably do, outside the eating times.

The paper suggests that the timetable is not a very helpful tool for learning. Here's why. A sequence of lessons will include a variety of types of learning. Yet the timetable fixes all of these to particular rooms for the whole year, regardless of what learning type each lesson might be. Perhaps devolving responsibility for individual rooms would be better. If the school is divided into sections for each department then in each section there could be spaces for all the different types of learning. Students would know which section they were going to at lesson change-over. The department would manage allocation of spaces to classes based on what the teacher had planned to do.

Another solution to this is build in enough flexibility into each room to allow reconfiguration between lessons for different learning types. The problem with this is teachers finding the energy between lessons to move around furniture and ICT.

I was impressed just by the title of the 4th strategy: "Leverage Space Strategies to Enable Experimentation". As Shirley says "learning space strategy is more likely to stimulate institutional change if it can make a variety of teaching settings available to a greater number of faculty". In other words like the chicken and egg you need both the innovative spaces and the willing staff before any innovation is possible.

Number 8 "Link Space Performance to Learning Assessment" is actually about evaluating the effectiveness of the learning spaces. The paper asserts that "Institutions need to develop an ongoing process for researching students’ and faculty members’ experiences with learning spaces". It is hard to disagree. This only makes sense if the buildings that come out of BSF have the adaptability to be reconfigured in response to the insights arising from such evaluative work.

For me, the most important idea developed by this paper is that school designers need to be thinking about the building and its environs as an entire learning space. It won't do to envision students independently learning throughout the school day if the designers only consider the rooms as learning spaces. BSF needs to look at the variety of types of learning that the building will support, at the balance of formal versus informal spaces and at the number of single use versus adaptable and flexible spaces. I have a hunch that getting these balancing tricks right will be a very important part of creating a successful school building.

Wednesday, 18 March 2009

Innovation and how to do it

Every now and then (and not very often) I read something and think 'this is really getting to the heart of it'. That is what I thought when I started to read the research from Becta entitled 'Harnessing Technology: business practices which support risk-taking and innovation in schools and colleges'. If I were a wiser man I'd just end this by pointing you at the paper (here).

My advice is best read it for yourself. It's only 27 pages. For those who haven't the time my observations follow.

Firstly I was frustrated by a few things. The authors don't give much away about the sources of their research. Whilst I know they won't list the names of schools and colleges involved it would be useful to know how many they spoke to; how many primaries, secondaries and colleges, who they spoke to; ICT Coordinators, Senior Leaders, Middle Managers, ordinary teachers, where in the country they were, how they were selected and what they asked them. If I knew the answers to these questions I'd have a much better idea about how much faith to put in the findings.

My other gripe is that the paper doesn't seem to have been copy-edited. In the footnotes on page 8, it says 'Harvard ManageMentor: innovation implementation, provided by NCSL (Could we check this title, please?)'. On page 7, 'If there is an cost to being risk-averse, the importance of creating an environment where risk-taking is encouraged is even greater.' It may seem nitpicking, but these little errors do actually make it much harder to read.

(I hope this doesn't lead to someone going back through all my blog entries and listing all the typos)

Having made those criticisms I should make very clear that this is a fascinating piece. For everyone trying to help schools to use technology to enhance learning, the things that help innovation happen are very important to understand. So hats off to Neil McLean (if it was him) for commissioning this work.

It comes in two parts. Firstly the authors, Helena Renfrew Knight (Senior Associate, The Innovation Unit), Dr Scott Bryan and Dr Gilly Filsner, (both Consultants at Kable), describe other research around what makes innovation happen (and what gets in the way). Enablers include a good deal of material around risk management. Apparently the 'right kind of manager can make the difference in fomenting a culture of innovation' (page 9). The report makes clear that previous research into innovation highlights a blame culture, or fear of failure being a big barrier. There's a pleasing little table on page 11 that summarises the barriers and incentives to innovation uncovered by the NAO/PWC.

The second part is the meat. Here are outlined the 'conditions for innovation and risk taking' (page 12). These are categorised into three types; institutional, systemwide and process related.
Institutionally they identify eight 'practices that successful leaders have implemented.. to create a culture of innovation' (page 12). It doesn't say how 'successful' is defined, or more importantly how they decided which institutions exhibited a 'culture of innovation'. The eight 'practices' are; leadership, shared ownership, a no-blame culture (trust), monitoring of risks, motivation (those working in schools suffer from a 'moral purpose' that can 'inspire innovative behaviour' page 16), money, time, promotion of innovation, team work/collaboration, sharing and groovy (not their word) physical spaces. To illustrate here are some quotes.

'“You’ve got to make people feel as though they can make mistakes. Making mistakes is key. For example, we spent £18k on a behaviour monitoring and registration system. We learned the hard way that technology companies will say what they need to in order to make a sale and the system won’t necessarily do what we need. It puts you in a position to know what you need, how to manage these companies and what it is likely to cost.” (Academy)' (page 14) This is from the bit about no-blame. If the only failure is making a mistake and not learning from it then you'll have very few.

In relation to funding the report says 'Obtaining funding to cover a new approach can be key to innovation happening. Our research indicates that recognition of the funding implications for pursuing innovation is essential. It is not surprising that our findings confirm that NAO’s assessment that lack of resources, financial and otherwise, acts as a barrier to innovation.' (Page 16) I hope someone with the key to the public coffers has read that one.

The final section of the research looks at the process of innovating. There was less in this that struck me. But at the end of the paper this and the preceeding ideas about 'practices' are neatly summarised in a diagram. I might just print that one out and pin it to my wall.

Wednesday, 11 March 2009

Open Source

The government's policy announcement has generated some interest.

Merlin John (here) reported Becta's Stephen Lucey, executive director for strategic technologies as welcoming the news.

Computing UK followed all this up (here) with a quote from Tim Byles, chief executive of Partnership for Schools, indicating that BSF managed service providers don't do open source (or words to that effect).

No news on Finland (yet).

Friday, 6 March 2009

Finland Encourages use of Open Source by 'Public Administrations'

Just read an announcement on the epractice website ( to this effect. This was made on 23rd February - so a little ahead of the UK Government policy announcement. Like that policy this one stresses the use of open standards and the possible reduction of costs. The document apparently asserts that "There are many useful open source applications that no Finnish IT service supplier currently supports. However, if the Public Administration has sufficient knowledge and technical skill, selecting such an application can be justified."

The epractice website is a useful source of european news in relation to ICT in public service across the eu.

Tuesday, 3 March 2009

Open Source in Government Action Plan

This is interesting. The UK Government announces a major policy shift towards greater use of open-source software. There's a link to the action plan on this page. The page also has a link to a netvibes aggregation page around this issue. It's all very Web 2.0! In fact the policy looks like a very encouraging statement of intent.

The foreword is by Tom Watson MP Minister for Digital Engagement. (As an aside I've just remembered reading that the Government is looking for a Director of Digital Engagement in the Cabinet Office - Seb Schmoller's website was the source.) I was delighted to see that the government wants to 'share and re-use what the taxpayer has already purchased across the public sector – not just to avoid paying twice, but to reduce risks and to drive common, joined up solutions to the common needs of government.' Sounds great, but I wondered what exactly that might mean. Later in the section on policy this appears: 'Where non open source products need to be purchased, Government will expect licences to be available for all public sector use and for licences already purchased to be transferable within the public sector without further cost or limitation. The Government will where appropriate seek pan-government agreements with software suppliers which ensure that government is treated as a single entity for the purposes of volume discounts and transferability of licences.' (Apologies for lack of page references but the document isn't paginated.)

Microsoft licensing rules are byzantine, but my very shallow understanding is that Microsoft likes the idea of transfer of licenses as much as I like having my teeth extracted. I don't want to drift into Microsoft bashing (others do this much better), so I want to point out how long and difficult it was to persuade a web development software company that licenses could be transferred between the host school that my organisation is based within and the CLC itself. My view is that this policy represents a move to a less cosy relationship with the industry. This is a good thing.

Back to the foreword where Tom Watson is adding that 'We want to encourage innovation and innovators - inside Government by encouraging open source thinking, and outside Government by helping to develop a vibrant market.' This also sounds very admirable. Later it is asserted that a key objective will be to: 'embed an "open source" culture of sharing, re-use and collaborative development across Government and its suppliers, building on the re-use policies and processes already agreed within the CIO Council, and in doing so seek to stimulate innovation, reduce cost and risk, and improve speed to market.' Marvellous. This is the kind of thing commentators have been arguing for, so I hope that this will be heartily welcomed.

The paper is peppered with terms to warm the cockles of all the open-source advocates, 'open standards', 're-use', 'open document format' and so on.

The final section is an action plan. This is well worth reading, but all I want to say is that the actions proposed make me think that the government is deadly serious about achieving these objectives.

As a final comment I wonder how far the procurement policies proposed here will be able to impact on the BSF processes across the country. In my view it would be a very good thing if they did.

Ofsted Report 'The importance of ICT'

This is worth reading and can be downloaded from here

The comments about the very slow improvement to achievement in ICT are the main findings highlighted by others including the BBC ( But I'd like to draw attention to the second section of the report (Section B from page 29 onwards).

This section starts by asserting that assessment of capability in ICT is still a very significant problem in the state sector. One in five of the schools Ofsted visited had no systems for making these judgements and so students were given the same work in different places. As worrying is the finding that: 'In the majority of the primary and secondary schools visited, teachers did not evaluate specifically how well pupils and students applied and used their ICT skills when working in other subjects.' (page 29) and that 'Most of the primary schools visited missed opportunities for pupils to become involved in peer or self-assessment...' (page 29).

Ofsted then devote a couple of sides to analysing the qualifications at KS4 in ICT. The report is pretty damning in its judgements on the new vocational qualifications. I was taken aback. Here is a particularly cutting observation.
'Accreditation of the vocational qualifications is based mostly on the assessment of coursework... Consequently, they are often demonstrating what they can already do rather than being taught new and more difficult skills. Sometimes, teachers direct students’ work too much. In some of the lessons observed during the survey, teachers led their students through the steps necessary to demonstrate that their work met the accreditation criteria. Students were able to meet the criteria, whether or not they had understood what they had done.'(Page 31)
It is a view I think I would have to agree with. It doesn't seem to be very helpful to the present issues around the introduction of diplomas that the government is facing. The report also describes the vocational qualifications as 'limit[ing] the achievement of higher attaining students' and failing to develop the really important ICT skills for the future such as 'manipulating data and programming' (page 32). Ofsted really puts the boot in when they state that there needs to be a 'proper evaluation of the challenge posed by vocational qualifications ... if they are to retain credibility with students, parents and employers.' (Page 32) In other words these vocational qualifications aren't rigorous enough, they don't teach the right skills and students can pass them without knowing even the undemanding content they do encompass. Ouch.

For a professional working with schools to embedd ICT I read the final part of section B 'Getting ICT to the learning' (page 35) with very great interest. It contains a very great deal of wisdom about the issues around integrating ICT across the curriculum. For example my own experiences are very much in accord with this observation from the report: 'Nationally ... although the use of ICT in other subjects is generally improving, the picture this survey establishes is one of patchy provision and inconsistent progress.' I nearly shouted aloud in agreement when I read 'Progress in using ICT to improve learning in other subjects is sometimes limited because its use was not sufficiently considered when planning the work or because of individual teachers’ lack of understanding of when and where ICT might make a difference.' (Page 36) Another hallelujah 'Schools have successfully created a demand from teachers to be able to use ICT to improve learning in other subjects but are rarely able to meet it. Most primary and secondary schools have chosen to centralise the bulk of their ICT resources in networked computer rooms. This is necessary for whole-class teaching of ICT but the result is that resources are often extremely limited elsewhere for work in other subjects.' (Page 36) The practical problems of enabling access to ICT for students through all their lessons is still a very big and serious limiter on teacher use of ICT. Ofsted think that mobile devices might be an answer. I'm not sure. You can't edit video on many handhelds I've seen. This is an issue that isn't going to go away.

Friday, 20 February 2009

Online Parental Engagement

This is a specific DCSF target for schools. Secondary schools are required to report the following information online: attendance, behaviour, progress, attainment and special needs. This needs to be in place by September 2010 (2012 for primaries). It is easy when responding to a national dictat like this to focus on meeting the requirement, without thinking more broadly about what it is intended to achieve. The goal of this process is to create an effective and helpful conversation with parents about their child's learning. The conversation shouldn't be one-sided and it should help both sides tailor what they do to support the development of the child as a learner.

With the schools I work with it seemed that we needed to take a couple of steps backwards and look at the whole communication strategy the school employs. In fact it turned out that the schools had never considered communication with parents in this wider sense before. I've just been supporting this by creating a survey that they have used to ask their parents about how and what they want communicated.

The answers the parents gave were in the end not very clear cut. One said "The preferred method of communication would differ in different circumstances. For general purposes I would prefer letter format, but for emergencies, such as illness I would prefer a telephone call." Letter was still (marginally) the preferred method of communication. But I think the point made by this parent probably means another survey of views with a little more sophisticated questioning needs to happen.

The preference for letters might also mean that parents were thinking about messages and not communication in general.

Once a better picture has emerged I think the schools should then be thinking about how the web based communication fits into that bigger landscape. I'll post further developments with this as they arise.

Wednesday, 18 February 2009

NAO Report on BSF

You sit around waiting for analysis of BSF for months on end, and then all of a sudden three reports come along in quick succession.

This one is from the National Audit Office and can be downloaded from here. The NAO is concerned with value for money and effective use of money. This is not a report about the learning and teaching in BSF schools. Nevertheless it is worth a look if you have an interest in BSF, at least read the executive summary (only 10 sides).

The opening sections explain the byzantine funding arrangements. They are baffling.

The report contains a number of very instructive graphics, diagrams explaining the funding arrangements, number of new schools built against the targets and so on, and I've tried to copy some into here but without success. If you want the pleasure of these you'll have to look at the original report.

The substance of the report is about value for money and here the NAO are equivocal. They explain that 'projects have been slow to provide data, and PfS has not yet collected enough on their whole life costs to enable us to come to a firm judgement on the projects’ overall value for money. There is also limited data on schools procured through other routes to provide ready benchmarks of all aspects of their costs.' (p24) The report does find that Academies were significantly more expensive to build than BSF schools, BSF £1,850 per square metre average costs compared to £2,240 per square metre for Academies before the programme was integrated into BSF.
'There is no statistical difference between the average price of BSF schools and PFI schools built before BSF was launched. The prices of schools procured through other routes are not collected centrally.' (p24)

The report also finds some benefits from the use of the LEP as well as some shortcomings. The report echoes the findings of PWC when it says 'BSF requires significant time commitment from school leaders, who told us that it creates considerable pressure on their ability to carry out their other duties. Some Local Authorities provide their schools with additional resources to plan and procure BSF, including to cover teaching while leaders (Governors, Heads, Deputies, and other senior staff) commit time to BSF.' But 'School leaders in our focus groups told us they often felt left to manage alone.' (p27) This is unacceptable. I also wondered about the observation, 'The best design of each individual school developed by bidders during the procurement process does not always win, because: the Local Authority scores bids on a variety of factors of which design counts for only 18 per cent...' I understand that LAs can't make a choice solely on design quality, companies selected must have the capacity and the experience necessary to be successful. Yet 18% seems very low.

It is very interesting that the views of LAs and private sector partners differ significantly when asked about if the LEP is a good approach to renewing school estate and equipping it to be capable of improving educational outcomes. It is hard to say exactly as the figures are not given but around 65% of the private sector partners thought that the LEP was either 'effective' or 'highly effective and worthwhile'. Only about 28% of LAs were of the same opinion. Quite why these opinions differed so widely I couldn't explain. The report does not even note this variation. I would be very keen to hear from anyone involved who thought they could explain this.

There is positive judgement about PfS in the report. But the NAO does note that PfS performance targets are all about timeliness and not quality and an implication that this isn't helpful to the main task at hand.

The report includes detailed case studies from Manchester, Bristol, Kent, Lewisham, Solihull, Lancashire and Ealing. There is a great deal of informative material in these and I'd cover this if I had the time. Again I recommend the report to you, but don't go there looking for answers to questions of educational quality.

Friday, 13 February 2009

Building Schools for the Future and Futurelab

Futurelab have just released a document called 'Transforming Schools for the Future?'. Download it from here. Four contributors have written short essays designed to stimulate thinking around the BSF process. Tim Rudd (Senior Researcher at Futurelab) argues that BSF will be more effective at changing learning for the better if young people are given a genuine voice in designing these new schools. His argument is very compelling. Tim recognises that personalisation if it has any meaning must imply student choices and empowerment. So, he argues, BSF should embrace learner empowerment. I find this an attractive proposition. I am a great believer in the idea that the means make the ends. The argument would be stronger if it was not based solely on logic. Unfortunately he doesn't refer the reader to any examples of this working in practice.
Nick Page is next and makes some similarly straightforward proposals to improve BSF. He wants greater preparatory work with schools. He wants more testing and experimenting before schools begin. I particularly appreciate his reference to City Learnining Centres (p 11) as good places to do the experimenting. He says 'Every project should have a link university who can help provide the research methodologies and support'. I'm sure most observers would say these are very sensible ideas. His focus on the human process of thinking through the whole thing makes a lot of sense. It made me think about the PWC report I wrote about a few weeks ago - visible here. Lack of funding to schools to help them prepare is highlighted in the report.
Rosemary Luckin, (Professor of Learner Centered Design, London Knowledge Lab, Institute of Education) has, in my opinion, some of the most interesting reflections.
'Teachers have a vitally important role in the realisation of the transformative power of technology, but this role is continually evolving and teachers need support to operate effectively in a ‘perpetual beta’ world.' (p 14) This made me stop and think for a minute. What makes google docs so powerful is their ability to add functionality, or alter the interface on the fly. They can watch the effects and decide whether or not to keep the change or try something else. Teachers should be able to use technology to support a similar process with learners.
She says on page 15 that BSF needs to 'explore how the school can be designed in a manner that enables it to continue to evolve'. A fabulous point I think. Learning is at the centre of this dynamic, and without the ability to change, what point would there be in educationalists and learners finding out what is effective and suboptimal in their buildings?
Bob Harrison of Toshiba Information Systems is the last contributor. I was struck by this question.
'How do we create a climate for the education workforce to innovate and be creative within a system which is “internally consistent and self sustaining”?' (p 20) This is at the heart of much of the weaknesses in BSF at present. I remember PM Tony Blair asserting that standards not structures matter and being sceptical. Very often the former are shaped by the latter. Our present school system creates institutions that are extremely risk averse and defensive. If BSF can be a tool for decoupling some of the engines that create this climate in schools then I'll be delighted.

Friday, 23 January 2009

PWC Report on BSF

This has appeared having a publication date of December 2008. The full report can be downloaded from here. This is the teachernet website run by the DCSF. It has the following upbeat summary of the report.
'The report shows that BSF is making good progress, that there is increasing belief in all stakeholders that it will deliver strong benefits for teaching and learning, and particularly from schools as they actually go through the programme. There is strong evidence of satisfaction with their new buildings from the staff and pupils of the first four new BSF schools opened.'

Strange then that the actual report should say:
'.. staff ... were generally less knowledgeable than other stakeholders of the aims and objectives of BSF for their school, or the potential for the programme to have longer-term educational impacts.' and, 'Schools should review their communication strategies in order to ensure that the processes used to inform teaching staff are effective'.

I suppose if staff had known almost nothing at the last review then it would be fair to say they have an increasing belief in the strong benefits. Or perhaps the DCSF doesn't include staff as a stakeholder group?

I found these headline findings very interesting.
  • 'BSF managers and directors in four of the 11 LAs interviewed stated that they did not provide funding to schools to enable them to implement BSF.' Although the remaining 7 did provide funds. I would have thought all schools would need financial support to undertake all the very necessary preparatory work for BSF. The report says 'Most [heads] said there was a shortfall, sometimes a large one, between LA funding received and the actual costs they had incurred' and so it goes on to recommend better funding. I've seen a very great deal of capital investment in schools be less effective because of a failure to invest in human resources. ICT put in to schools where staff receive insufficient training and support is just one example. So this is a particular disappointment.
  • The effectiveness of the LEP (Local Educational Partnership) as a tool for delivery of BSF is examined. I find it very concerning that this was reported, 'Given that ICT provision and maintenance is one of a number of key responsibilities of the LEP, it is surprising that only one-fifth of headteachers (20%) agreed or strongly agreed that the use of a LEP for ICT provision and maintenance and other related services would be a good thing, and that negative responses were higher than for other questions ... (at 21%).' BSF has been a trojan horse for the imposition of managed ICT services in schools. This is an experiment. The evidence for the effectiveness of managed services in schools is limited at best. (See for example the Becta research I posted about here.)
  • The views on the LEP itself were also worrying. 'Just under one fifth of headteachers overall (19%) thought that educational interests would be adequately represented in the LEP, with a higher number of positive responses from Wave 1-3 schools than from Wave 4-6 schools (32% and 13% respectively).' So even in the wave 1-3 schools two-thirds of the heads interviewed were not able to be confident that educational interests would be paramount to the LEP. If I was running Partnership for Schools (PfS - the quango steering BSF) I'd be very worried by these numbers!
  • Further 'A small number of interviewees expressed concern that the contracting company might be too dominant within the LEP (reflecting the fact that the LEP model is 80% private, 10% BSFI and 10% LA controlled).'
So overall not the terrific success the teachernet website claims.

Thursday, 22 January 2009

Specialist Schools

News reports of research don't always represent it as faithfully as they might. Just a moment ago I was looking at the BBC rss feed on education and came across the following headline 'Specialist schools' value queried'. I clicked through to the full article that explained;
'The success of England's specialist schools is an illusion, with the extra money they receive and intake being the crucial factors, according to a report. A University of Buckingham report said the system had led to schools with names that "did not mean very much". It said 2007 research suggested pupils at schools specialising in music were more likely to get A grades in physics A-level than those at science schools. ' 'The authors of the latest study say specialist schools appear to do better because poorer performing schools were not granted specialist status. Professor Alan Smithers said: "All the SSAT's (Specialist Schools and Academies Trust) comparisons amount to is that if you take effective schools and give them extra money, they do better than less effective schools without extra money."
The study showed, he said, that the extra money pumped into specialist schools, as well as their intake of pupils, had the biggest impact on results.'
Goodness I thought this is pretty damning so I went to the University Of Buckingham's website and downloaded the report. That the title of the report is 'SPECIALIST SCIENCE SCHOOLS' is quite surprising. The authors are chiefly interested in the decline in numbers of young people choosing A Level Physics.
'Since 1990, physics entries, based on the annual returns of what is now the Joint Council for Qualifications, went down from 45,300 to 28,100 (38.0 per cent decrease), while total entries went up from 684,100 to 827,700 (21.0 per cent increase).' 'In this report we investigate what has prompted schools to choose particular specialisms and what contribution they are making in their nominated subjects. In particular, it has as its core questions: (1) are science schools increasing participation in physics at GCSE and A-level; and (2) are they improving performance in physics at GCSE and A-level?'
Given these objectives it is hard to understand how the headlines from the BBC came out of the research. The report itself isn't a very impressive piece of work. For example the attention grabbing comparison of Music and Science Specialist Schools looks unconvincing when there are only 12 Music Specialist Schools being compared with 159 Science.
Add to Technorati Favorites