St Austin’s RC School: managing our IT investments differently

Success in managing our IT investments differently is not achievable without strong leadership

My philosophy is that no children should leave St Austin’s Catholic Primary School, a voluntary academy and partner school in the Bishop Konstant Catholic Academy Trust, below the standard expected.

When the pandemic hit and students had to work from home, many of our students did not have access to technology.  There was a real concern around the negative impact this would create for our students’ learning and increasing access to technology was instrumental. If we didn’t invest wisely in technology, our students would miss out, which was simply not an option; there was enormous pressure to make this work.

Pre-pandemic, our approach to IT spend was old-fashioned.  It was very much seen as an add-on to school life rather than an integral part of a child’s learning process. This resulted in an attitude of – let’s save up and when there’s enough, we’ll buy a class a set of iPads or laptops. Thousands of pounds would be spent on a relatively small number of laptops and over a relatively short space of time, the laptops would slow down and become unfit for purpose. In reality this meant that because the school was buying new, and expensive, it had to save up and when it did finally arrive, it was one set of devices that had to be shared around many classes. Access for children was limited and therefore the impact of devices on learning was limited too.

This led to various issues and when providing impact reports to governors the value of IT was not recognised, and further investment was not supported.  It was a cycle of ineffective IT investment.

The pandemic, combined with our past experiences, drove a complete change of IT strategy to ensure universal access to devices, with recycled kit playing a prominent role.

Investment to support digital learning was vital and changing mindsets was the first step. It’s also not unusual to face a reluctance in the need for investment in this area, but changing hearts and minds was probably the biggest barrier to crack.

Today, our approach has full buy-in from everyone at all levels, and it has had a positive impact on everyone; senior leaders, governors, teachers, students, and parents.

Investing in IT differently: the recycled route

Schools often have one massive spend on IT, purchasing all devices and equipment needed in one go. Yet, there is a clear need to move beyond the traditional, historic approach to purchasing, and invest in IT differently.

There’s no need to wait for technology to break, or until a problem arises, because at this point the purchasing decision becomes less of an informed choice and more of a panic buy. Instead of bulk buying, we invest on a regular basis. Our proactive approach adopts a rolling programme of investment, undertaking regular technology health checks to identify potential issues; establishing a road map of planned investment.

At the same time, we avoided falling into the trap of purchasing technology that’s over and above what we actually need, whilst also deciding that brand new equipment was no longer a financially viable option.

We identified that we were able to buy more Chromebooks than the equivalent in new laptops which importantly allowed us to reach all students. We also took the money saving aspect a step further, and rather than purchasing brand new, we looked into the feasibility of recycled devices from Reconome; something which we had never previously pursued, yet has since proved a smart decision.

We were able to furnish a class of 30 students with a recycled Chromebook, the required licences and the charging trolley for approx. £6k, which in the past would have been spent on just 15 laptops.

Beyond the monetary savings of recycled tech, which has meant that we could effectively order more kit than if we’d ordered new and thus reach more students, we were able to receive delivery quickly. As most schools will have experienced this year, delivery times on new tech has risen enormously because of the shortage of computer chips, but this was not an issue with repurposed equipment sourced from UK businesses.

Using recycled technology allows us to choose products that are cost-effective in the short and long-term, taking into account our environmental impact and selecting more sustainable options via the circular procurement route.

As well as the recycled route, we have also pursued leasing arrangements, which some can be sceptical with. Schools generally lease other equipment, such as photocopiers, so why not lease other devices?

Raising pupil engagement

Chromebooks have proved to be a highly effective choice of device that matches the needs of our community. As a result, technology is now an integral tool for teachers and students to accelerate learning rather than just an ‘add on’ when each class is on the rota to have them. Having applied the same approach to IT investment in other schools, outcomes for students often follow a steep upward trajectory in all areas largely due to the way the devices are used; raising pupil engagement and better tailoring learning to individual needs.

These devices are significantly faster for students to use and stand up far better than the alternatives, such as laptops. Less time is spent by staff managing the devices too which means there is more time to be spent on teaching, and this makes life easier for our staff. Staff also spend less time marking work as they can digitally record voice messages for students compared to previously taking hand-written notes.  Teachers have real-time feedback on students’ performance on programmes which they can talk through immediately in class whereas before, they would have to wait until the end of the lesson and mark the books which slowed down the whole learning process.

What’s important is that staff are trained on how to maximise the use of devices; we didn’t want to become a school where children were taught by computers, instead technology complements and adds significant value to high-quality, traditional teaching.

What’s important is that staff are trained on how to maximise the use of devices; we didn’t want to become a school where children were taught by computers, instead technology complements and adds significant value to high-quality, traditional teaching

Traditional lessons always have pockets where a child has finished some work and is waiting for direction or has finished 10 minutes before playtime and there just isn’t enough time to start a new task. Now there are endless opportunities for students to hop onto their device and access one of the many quality learning programmes.

Supporting student outcomes

Maximising our IT budget is essential, but predominantly it’s about supporting students. Now, rather than timetabling in using the laptop, they have access to devices when and where needed. What this has done is ensure that no child has been left behind through lack of access to technology, and it has increased engagement levels – not only from an outcomes perspective but in terms of more healthy engagement in learning.

Success in managing our IT investments differently is not achievable without strong leadership in place and we have the right people to drive the improvement, vision and oversight; we never stand still. My advice for other schools that are rethinking their IT investments is to learn from others that have already made a change; research what other schools are doing and look at what’s working well.

What’s exciting is that by leading this way of thinking, other schools within our academy trust can learn from our journey and are thinking about their own IT investments differently. They are keen to come onboard with this strategy. Our vision as a trust is that this strategy will mean that high performing schools provide outstanding levels of education for students, and that through this strategy, it will be a unique selling point of the trust. Also, the level of digital literacy our children will receive will mean that they will be well prepared for the digital workplace and be in pole position for jobs in the future.

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