How do school leaders fill edtech gaps?

Sarah Morgan, who leads the edtech demonstrator programme at Pheasey Park Farm Primary School, explains how schools can make up for lost time and improve their edtech offer

The head of IT in every school is essential to its successful, safe operation and the delivery of learning. But the role is broad and complex. It involves having a peripheral understanding of everyone’s needs, then planning, developing and implementing a strategy for the academic and operational infrastructure.

All IT systems must be robust, safe, reliable and cost-effective. To do this, the head of IT requires active engagement with the leadership team, teachers, support staff, bursars and the wider finance team, governors and even parents – a big ask! Only through this engagement can they begin to understand what IT is necessary for an effective learning environment, and the delivery of a first-class, reliable ICT provision at all times, to budget and with minimal disruption to learning.

But it doesn’t stop there. On top of all this, the leader must be able to promote the use of technology within teaching and learning and provide the necessary training and guidance.

We regularly see IT leads or edtech leaders new to the role. They have, in some instances, been assigned this responsibility due to their technical ability. However, the complexity of managing large financial budgets is something few people are trained to do. IT leaders need the experience and leadership qualities as well as being willing to upskill themselves technically, in an everchanging landscape.

Finding a qualified head of IT who is highly competent and experienced in all these areas is tough – and yet the success of a school depends on it. The EdTech Demonstrator Programme was developed by the Department for Education (DfE) to, amongst other things, ‘fill these gaps’ and, as one of the government’s demonstrator schools, over the past two years we have seen several common ‘gaps’, where schools need support.

But finding the right head of IT is just the first part of the equation.

Finding the time

The first challenge that IT leads face is time. At Pheasey Park Farm Primary School, we took seven years to build the skills and experience necessary to become an EdTech Demonstrator School and eight years to become a Microsoft Showcase school. Other schools don’t want to wait this long to develop the skills and experience to ensure a fully effective IT provision.

Therefore, we encourage schools to undertake a comprehensive audit with us to create a baseline. From this, they can use our years of experience to identify strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats. We create an immediate action plan for those very obvious critical issues and a longer term plan for the next four years and onwards; the rollout of technology, in a robust and embedded way can take longer than a year.

What can be afforded?

Having a clear vision and action plan is of course only half of it. Ensuring this is designed with full consideration of the available budget is something we see many IT leads struggling with. Financial planning has to be done from the top and therefore, the head of IT needs to have full buy in from, and regular communication with, the head of school and all stakeholders.

Don’t be distracted by ‘glittery’ products

We sometimes see young heads of IT focusing on exciting shiny new peripheral technologies before the foundational infrastructure is established. This will inevitably result in a negative experience for everyone which then impacts staff and pupil moral and ultimately that of the head of IT.  For example, a head of IT may be impressed with an expensive new robotic learning resource. However, without connectivity to the network, the associated software and training, at the very best students will just have fun ‘playing’ with the resource without any planned educational outcomes.

Finding a school-wide strategy

Following this, while edtech leaders should certainly research current technologies in order to maintain a high level of innovation, anything that is implemented should always have a purpose and intended impact. As mentioned, this direction has to be set in collaboration with the whole school. For instance, is a new maths resource needed to give some students the motivation to learn, is the administrative team spending a lot of time on attendance reporting or would one visually impaired student benefit from having a literacy support tool? All IT investments should be a whole school decision, and its use should regularly be reviewed and measured.

Train and train again

The need for extensive initial training and continuing professional development (CPD) to support the rollout of technology can not be overstated. It is often not the fault of the head of IT; it commonly stems from the workload of other people in the school that need training: head of school, department heads, teachers, adminstrators and even students. Some schools may have made a substantial investment in technology but, without training there will inevitably be little return on the investment. I can’t over state the importance of regular, high-quality CPD for staff. It has such a significant, direct and positive impact on children’s outcomes.

Building your team

The role of a head of IT should never be lonely; it should not be the responsibility of one person. A common theme through all of the points I’ve made is the importance of whole school collaboration. The head of IT needs to create a team, bringing in everyone who will be involved at some point including:

  • The head of school
  • Subject coordinators
  • Parents
  • Pupils
  • Edtech governors
  • Edtech teams
  • Any technical support partner
  • Industry partners/suppliers
  • Primary vs secondary

As this publication is read by both primary and secondary schools, I thought it was important to answer a question we are often asked. Is there a difference between the head of IT’s role in a primary school and secondary school?

The answer is that while the fundamentals are the same in terms of infrastructure, implementation and training, primary schools tend to focus on year groups while secondary schools work in departments.  As far as our job is concerned, when we start running a school-wide audit in primary schools, we see mistakes and areas of excellence in year groups, while in secondary schools these pockets of good practice are at a departmental level.

What’s the impact of recent changes?

The early adopter schools that we’ve worked with have been cloud-based for many years, but it has been the pandemic that has pushed many more schools to make this positive move. It has come with several benefits. The most obvious advantage that we’ve all experienced over the past two years is that staff can easily access any files from outside the school building. With the right infrastructure in place, documents can be easily shared and worked on collaboratively.

Having a cloud-based system also removes the need for large capacity onsite file servers, for storage and printing, reducing hardware costs significantly. For multi academy trusts, management information systems stored in the cloud can be accessed across multiple school sites. We do, however, recommend that small in-school servers are kept to handle technologies such as door systems and CCTV.

What next with the end of edtech demonstrator school funding?

Sadly, edtech demonstrator school funding is coming to an end over the summer term. However, schools can still access from as little as six hours up to 30 hours of free support, fully funded by the DfE.

But what about next year?

During our time as an edtech demonstrator school, we have realised the value of having a community of like-minded educators; sharing ideas, support and best practice with each other. With the sad demise of the government’s programme, we are working on building this community that can be used to enhance the traditional provision in classrooms.

We are calling on all schools who want to find out more to reach out to us. This comes with free weekly webinars covering a wide range of technical and teaching tips and strategies.

I look forward to welcoming schools onboard.

To seek support from Pheasey Park Farm Primary School edtech demonstrator programme, contact Training@pheasey.org.uk.

Sarah Morgan is the edtech demonstrator programme lead at Pheasey Park Farm Primary School and Early Years Centre, which is part of Elston Hall Learning Trust.

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