September 2010


  • Feeling the pinch
    Even before the government’s Comprehensive Spending Review, schools and colleges are under pressure to reduce their running costs. Some have already secured huge savings – both in money and staff time – by harnessing technology to help them manage more efficiently. Lucie Carrington reports. More
  • A head for science
    Liz Lightfoot talks to Sir John Holman about his role as director of the National Science Learning Centre and why he believes league tables and exam boards have diluted the science curriculum. More
  • What the papers say
    Securing positive press coverage can work wonders for a school or college, making it look successful and more attractive to prospective parents and the local community. And a good relationship with local newspapers can also pay dividends with staff and students, says Gareth Davies. More
  • Sixth sense
    A new framework for 16-19 year-olds which recognises both academic and extra-curricular achievements could be a blueprint for the future. Principals Jackie Johnston and David Adelman explain how it works. More
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Even before the government’s Comprehensive Spending Review, schools and colleges are under pressure to reduce their running costs. Some have already secured huge savings – both in money and staff time – by harnessing technology to help them manage more efficiently. Lucie Carrington reports. 

Feeling the pinch

Few school and college leaders - even those who consider themselves less than computer savvy - would deny the importance of first-class ICT systems. The emphasis on data to measure the success of individual schools and colleges, the increasing complexity in the way education is delivered, for example through diplomas and apprenticeships, and the growing computer literacy of young people have all made effective ICT vital.

However, as cuts in the education budget start to bite every area of spending, investment in ICT is under close scrutiny both in terms of efficiency and pupil outcomes.

Rather than viewing ICT as an additional cost, however, it can help to save costs simply by making existing processes more efficient. West Nottinghamshire College in Mansfield, for example, has saved hundreds of thousands of pounds by investing in an integrated print management system.

Historically, the college had used hired desktop printers and photocopiers, while for larger and specialist reprographics needs, work was sent out of house. The new system is built around multi-functional devices for printing and photocopying, leased under a five-year contract.

Staff send materials for printing via a central server, then pick up hard copies from any of the 30 or so devices on the site, using their RFID (radio frequency identity card) to access it.

Under this ‘pull-print’ solution, the document remains on the server for 24 hours and is deleted if not collected, so the server avoids becoming overloaded. Paper and ink cartridges are ordered via an e-procurement system and delivered to individual machines.

For larger reprographics jobs, staff contact the college’s in-house reprographics centre where, using job ticketing software, they can see the cost of the print job and different cost options, send the file for printing and specify where it should be delivered.

“Staff became more aware of the cost and the cheaper alternative ways of printing that are available to them and they use less paper,” says procurement manager Angie Pilgrim. “The system has saved us a huge amount of money – hundreds of thousands of pounds over the life of the contract – as well as being more efficient in terms of time saved.”

West Notts features in a set of case studies compiled by Becta to show how schools, colleges and other educational organisations are adding value through a judicious use of the ICT budget. Besides pure cost-saving, they demonstrate how ICT can be used to improve the quality of education available to pupils and students by saving time and providing access to other resources.

Suffolk Education Business Partnership (SEBP), for example, has revolutionised its mentoring scheme by introducing the e-mentoring programme, Passport to Success, offered by the education charity Bright Links. It costs SEBP £5,000 a year but is free to all member schools.

Leiston Community High School is using Passport to Success to expand the mentoring it offers engineering diploma students with British Energy staff at nearby Sizewell. The aim of the programme is to help students with learning and prepare them for life after school.

“At the moment we are using e-mentoring to complement our face-to-face programme,” says Jill Douglass who manages employer engagement at the school. “Mentors don’t offer careers advice but they can help students draft their CVs and guide them through job and college applications.”

Passport to Success is a structured programme involving 12 mentoring sessions and Leiston School runs it over three terms for students in years 10 and 11. Students and their mentors now use a secure email connection to arrange appointments online, exchange information and generally keep in touch between sessions. It is massively more efficient than the largely offline system it replaced, argues Jill.

“It certainly helps me as the coordinator. I don’t have to be a go-between arranging meetings for pupils and mentors because they can do it all themselves. But I can monitor all the contact between them and step in if there is a problem.” 

‘Speedier reaction’

It’s more flexible for the mentors too, many of whom work shifts and cannot always be around to talk to students during school hours, although face-to-face meetings still have to take place in school and during the school day.

It is also a huge improvement for pupils who get a speedier response to issues and problems that they raise. For example, one student needed to make a last-minute job application and was able to contact his mentor via email for help preparing for the interview.

Perhaps most importantly, the school is no longer confined to searching locally for mentors. This proved a real boon last year when there were insufficient mentors at British Energy and the school was able to offer some students mentors from across the county, albeit on an e-mentoring basis only.

Angela Edwards, employer engagement manager for SEBP, believes the potential of Passport to Success is only just becoming apparent.

“We have also introduced peer mentoring and we are now getting inquiries from schools wanting to use the system as a tutoring platform within school rather than a mentoring programme.”

As a result, Angela thinks it’s time to spread the word further afield and is planning to relaunch the scheme this term and so encourage schools to use the resources more fully.

The need to get staff – especially teachers – to understand and explore the possibilities of ICT is what is preventing some schools from getting the most out of their ICT investment insists Graham Cooper, head of marketing for Capita Children’s Services, the company behind SIMS, the widely-used information management system.

“Many senior school leaders think information management is just about setting up a database of names and addresses plus a bit more. But they should be giving teachers access to this data and encouraging them to use it to spot trends and patterns.”

Early intervention

Graham argues that this would enable schools to intervene earlier and more appropriately. “It’s not just about saving time, it’s also about making better decisions.”

Kay Purnell, data manager for the Kingswood Partnership, in Bristol, agrees with this view – but only in part. Kingswood, which consists of six schools and one FE college, has recently introduced Partnership Exchange, a SIMS application that enables them to share the registration data of pupils in Key Stage 4 and above.

The advent of diplomas, which has resulted in 4,000 pupils moving around the seven sites, has made this information sharing essential. Previously the partnership relied on staff manually inputting registration data and endless phone calls to chase up pupils.

Partnership Exchange, which costs each school £6,000 to set up plus a £1,000 annual licence fee, is certainly a more dynamic system, potentially enabling schools to share much more than registration data but also core data, performance scores, special educational needs information and more. Essentially, teachers take an electronic register at the start of lessons and 30 minutes later that information is available to all six schools and the FE college.

“The limiting factor is often the data inputting of teachers,” Kay says. “If a teacher hasn’t taken the electronic register – perhaps they left their laptop at home or couldn’t log on – then the information is not there to exchange.”

System compatibility has also been a problem because while all six schools use SIMS, the FE college does not. This has meant introducing a further application that enables the college to access Partnership Exchange.

“It was an ugly birth because there is so much to think through and there have been glitches in the system,” says Kay. “However, if it’s working 95 per cent of the time for 95 per cent of students that’s 95 per cent more information than we had before.”

And it has resulted in a massive time saving to do a job that would otherwise take an army of admin staff, she adds.

“We have to share this data if we are to deliver diplomas and without such a system as Partnership Exchange it’s almost an un-doable. We have come to rely on it.”

In a report on the ASCL website there are further examples of technological solutions that schools and colleges have developed to enable teaching and learning across institutions and to boost efficiency in the process. Several ideas focus on the virtual learning environment (VLE) as the key platform with some partnerships sharing a single VLE and others finding ways to link up their existing, separate ones.

Others stipulate the need for “careful design of databases” so that consortium members may pass necessary student data, such as modular assessment grades, to a central source for storage and eventual use in accreditation.

“Technology can offer solutions to the challenges schools and colleges face in delivering, for example, the diploma across their institutions,” says Christine Tyler, ASCL’s colleges specialist. “These solutions potentially improve and expand the experience for the learner while, at the same time, reducing the cost and time spent by institutions and staff.

“It is from the good practice by schools and colleges themselves that the real understanding emerges which is why it is so important to continue sharing what we know around the system.”

Lucie Carrington is a freelance writer specialising in education.

Further information

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