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Heading into the digital age

March 16, 2022, 10:15 GMT+1
Read in 7 minutes
  • Tight school budgets and the pace of tech advancement mean you need a school digital strategy, says Sue Birchall
Heading into the digital age

Many schools have approached digital and ICT innovation with caution, partly because of the financial commitments involved, but also due to lack of experience in what is a fast-changing industry. 

Support from external experts is abundant, but there is no doubting that ‘going down the wrong path’ is an expensive error to make. School business professionals like me are often the voice of caution, citing value for money, sustainability and renewal concerns amongst the reasons for taking a moment to pause and think carefully.

However, there is no denying that our young people are increasingly exposed to the latest ICT and all that entails in their day-to-day lives and, as educators, we need to be in tune with this. 

Government policy in 2019 highlighted the need for schools and colleges to embed technology effectively and pledged to support them in the effective adoption and use of edtech – outlining both the opportunities and barriers. 

The DfE then commissioned CooperGibson Research (CGR) to conduct a study to establish the state and usage of technology across schools in England (available at tinyurl.com/SchoolsTechnologysurvey), which produced some interesting findings – more on which later.

Fit for purpose

In the past two years, schools have been challenged by circumstances to take a big step into the world of ICT, which has become essential for the continued delivery of teaching and learning. 

This quickly highlighted how our students have hugely varying levels of access to ICT, with the government stepping in to try and provide laptops and internet connections to those without. After all, you cannot launch a new digital initiative without the appropriate equipment to support it. 

The same is true when it comes to children and staff’s knowledge of ICT. You can only introduce a technological transformation if the people who are supposed to deliver it have the necessary basic skills.

This was pointed out by CooperGibson Research, whose report found the education sector is still in need of significant support with the fundamentals when it comes to developing ICT within their settings.

The digital unknown

The question is this: is there a desire within schools and academies to look at how we can develop our ICT - not just as means to deliver the curriculum but also to expose our students to the vast range of new technologies now available? 

Is there also a need to look at upgrading our school systems, offering remote access for staff, with adequate security and accessibility – the pandemic having highlighted the benefits of flexible working?

In both cases I believe the answer is ‘yes’ - it may well be time we ventured into the digital unknown – but not without caution. 

Balancing spending

Firstly, there is a balance required here. Education institutions are not cash rich and desires of this nature need careful planning if they are to be sustained beyond the initial implementation.

The funds that we have available at school level are often not even sufficient to offer the upgrades and replacements that are identified in our existing ICT development plans, providing little capacity for the purchase of new technologies that might form part of more ambitious initiatives.

This, then, requires a funding strategy which at present is not supported by government financial investment.

The 21-22 CooperGibson Research survey identified this, along with the need for more central support and guidance on planning, procurement, training and sustainability.

It is clear that academies and newly built schools are a few steps ahead, at least in terms of their digital infrastructure and planning. The question has to be whether we sit back and wait for a central digital plan, or we start to plan locally to overcome the increasing digital divide between education and the wider world. 

Where to start?

As with all projects, we need to begin with a business planning model. 

Starting with your aims and purpose, you need to decide what this looks like for your setting. We all know that every school is different, not just within phases but also in locality, cohorts and environment.

That is not to say that you should limit your aims, all students need to be exposed to a variety of learning opportunities. After all, you may be educating the next Elon Musk!

The next step would be to match these aims to your school or academy development planning. Any innovations should support your school’s vision for the future and need to be incorporated into whole school planning, 

In my school, we have an ICT development plan which, according to the report from the 20-21 survey, is not as common as you might think, especially at primary level.

If you don’t have something like this in place, I would suggest that ICT planning sits alongside the budget, and SIP / ADP would assist in avoiding any costly purchasing mistakes. 

Bang for your buck

As with all purchases within school, we must be aware of value for money in terms of the anticipated outcomes. Technology that supports school operations does, generally speaking, help to make savings thanks to increased efficiencies – and this in turn frees up funding for other initiatives.

But this is only the case if the purchase is timely and adds value to your core purpose. 

Financial planning is imperative for your ICT purchases and especially any new projects. Aside from the initial purchase, sustainability must be considered; your planning should incorporate both immediate and long-term costs, such as money for repair and, eventually, replacements.

This is especially pertinent when new innovations become embedded into the school’s practice. 

Managing risk

Risk management also needs to be part of your business planning. We are all aware of the current, and sometimes sudden, increases in school running costs, so you need to consider and include alternative planning to take unexpected expenses into account. 

For instance, should you have spare devices in the event of damage? Is it worth taking out insurance? What would be the impact to school systems in the event of a breakdown or loss of service?

Also be aware that, if you are purchasing new technologies, the likelihood is they will be upgraded, improved or replaced at a fairly rapid rate, and you need to plan for this.

There are always risks for schools when it comes to investing in new technologies, but without doubt it is a risk worth taking. We are charged with educating our young people, readying them to take part in the wider world, and ICT is a huge part of that.

Sue Birchall is Director of Business and Outreach at The Malling School.