It’s a big task for a new principal to turn a school “in need of improvement” into a high-performing education institution. And when the school is in a rural location with a 350-mile catchment area, it’s not possible without careful planning.
Kingussie High School in Scotland’s Cairngorms National Park, was inspected by Education Scotland in 2012 and rated “in need of improvement.” The school was given 12 months to improve several key areas, including attainment and achievement for pupils, curriculum, support for pupils, and life opportunities for students once they left school.
I started at the school two months before the inspectors were due to arrive for their follow-up inspection.
Two months isn’t enough time to turn a school around. But it is enough time to create a plan and make inroads into tackling behaviour and ethos, while assessing the school’s strengths and untapped resources. We adopted 21st-century teaching practices by following seven steps to school improvement that we could implement over the following year and a half.
How Can Information and Communications Technology (ICT) Drive Long-Lasting Improvement for Low-Achieving School?
When a school needs radical improvement, a governing body or local authority will often bring in a super head—someone who will turn results around in a year, and then leave. But this is not a long-term solution. When that person leaves, the school loses the individual who is best-placed to continue its transformation.
Kingussie High School had been rated “in need of improvement” by the Scottish Government in 2012, nearly 12 months before my appointment as head teacher. This is the equivalent of an Ofsted rating of “special measures” in England.
Things needed to improve. Some staff felt demoralised, students weren’t happy, many parents were concerned and the school was under-performing.
Looking for a way forward, it was important to strive for sustainable goals that would make a lasting impact on attainment, achievement, and life opportunities for its pupils.
I had spent part of my career in education working as a national advisor for learning technologies for the central education agency, so I had some ideas on how technology could be used to make positive changes. The school had no ICT department and no ICT instructor, so this function had to be carried out in a way that was sustainable and achievable based on available resources.
Introducing a Seven-Step Plan to School Improvement
When faced with the task of improving a school at such a fast pace, I realised that I needed a detailed plan. One that we could start rolling out immediately, but that would also deliver long-term results.
We developed a seven-step plan that can be used by any school that wants to improve engagement and attainment through technology, in a way that makes sense to each school’s resources and goals.
Step One: Have a Clear Vision
Before starting any plan, it is important to develop a clear vision of what you want to do, then distribute it quickly by promoting ownership and leadership to staff and students throughout the school.
We were keen to develop the school into a community school with traditional values, but with a modern approach to teaching and learning. In addition to doing all the things that we’d expect schools to do—working on vision and values, communicating with parents, listening to pupils, engaging with local community—we wanted a modern twist on things to give our students a real kick start in life.
First, evaluate your resources. You might realise that you have valuable, unique assets that are not being used. For example, Kingussie High School is in the middle of one of Scotland’s two national parks. Cairngorms National Park is a mountainous rural area of astounding beauty. We had all this nature on our doorstep, but there was very little outdoor learning.
Before I started at the school, its location was often seen more as a challenge than a feature. We have a 350-square-mile catchment area, feeding the main towns in the southern end of the valley, but much of our catchment area is uninhabited. Because of our rural location, some young people travel at least an hour to get to school. Taking a holistic view allowed us to seize this opportunity and integrate outdoor learning into our curriculum. Google Chromebooks* powered by Intel®, were a key mobile learning tool that made this possible.
Step Two: Distribute Leadership
Once a school has a vision, distributing leadership across the school among staff and students will speed deployment and create a culture that encourages its sustainability.
Leverage the tools you have and evaluate what may seem to be weaknesses. The fact that we had no ICT instructor at Kingussie High School helped encourage teachers to take ownership of the ICT they used in the classroom. Now, it’s equally shared. All members of staff can reset passwords, which is the most common issue. They can set up the printers and troubleshoot minor technical issues.
We discovered that even the staff who are reluctant to use technology normally want what’s best for the students. This means they will buy-in to evidence-based approaches for learning and teaching that are focused on the pedagogical value of ICT in the classroom.
Step Three: Create Structures and Processes for Technology Infrastructure and Support
Creating sustainable systems across staff teams, and then sharing that practice across the wider school, will ensure long-term improvement because responsibility is shared.
At Kingussie we took a phased approach over three years to rollout 1:1 devices across the school. But in reality, as soon as we’d rolled out the first 200 devices for the first three years of secondary school we were already a 1:1 school due to the number of computers in classrooms and labs.
We wanted to be a mobile learning school, so we continued to roll out the 1:1 programme over the following three years.
We manage the day-to-day ICT ourselves. We’ve created a culture whereby if a device isn’t working, first we ask the person next to us, or someone in the staffroom. If that doesn’t work, we try Googling it. If that doesn’t work, we send it back to the people we purchased it from.
We’ve also moved our installation into the Highland Council system, so we can be part of its infrastructure. As a result, we don’t have to employ technicians and we can help other schools by extending what we’ve developed throughout the school district.
Step Four: Provide Ongoing High-Quality Professional Development That’s Not One-Size-Fits-All
Professional development is key to providing opportunities for staff to update their skills and maintain enthusiasm. It’s important, though, that just as every student is an individual, so is every teacher.
We do our best to provide professional development at nearly every level of staff engagement. This will often be daily on-the-job learning and skills sharing, linking with other staff and experts in different locations.
We use Chromebooks powered by Intel® for our 1:1 programme so before we started we rolled out Google Chrome across our corporate estate and encouraged staff to use it as their main Internet browser. By the time we rolled out the Chromebooks powered by Intel® staff had already been using Google Chrome, so they were already familiar with the technology.
With daily practice, our staff become proficient in the innovative way we build a curriculum, our novel approach to timetabling, the way we use technology, and how we use the outside environment. The result is well-trained enthusiastic staff who are engaged with the students and excited about providing the best education.
But success can be bittersweet. The reality is, this training and knowledge makes our staff highly desirable, so they often get promoted early or move to other schools. We call this the Kingussie story.
Step Five: Revise the Curriculum to Promote 21st-Century and Student-Centred Instructional Practices
The curriculum is key to school improvement. It’s important to spend a lot of time thinking about how 21st-century learning practices fit within the curriculum to provide the best learning experiences for students. To prepare students for the jobs of the future, ICT and digital skills must transcend the whole of the curriculum. To this end, we applied for and received a grant from the Scottish Government to become a 1:1 school using Google Chromebooks*.
Thinking about the curriculum in the local context and binding it with the technology is helpful when including subjects that may provide future job opportunities, in addition to traditional subjects like chemistry and physics.
At Kingussie, we try to link learning with local employment opportunities. So in our curriculum we’ve added construction, activity tourism, engineering science, and renewable energy, because those are the employment opportunities in the Highlands.
Step Six: Focus on Improving School Culture
Digital culture is a key component of school improvement. But to successfully enhance learning, teaching, and assessment while improving communication between administration, teachers, and students, technology must be woven seamlessly into the curriculum.
At Kingussie High School, we focus on developing the student-centred classroom. We treat each student as an individual with unique needs, rather than as a class, year group, or cohort.
That’s an easy thing to say, but a tricky thing to do. To provide that personalised experience, we give students access to community experts—for example, with Skype* in the classroom or Google Hangouts*. They can also decide on which projects they want to research.
Pick the right technology. It must be accessible and easy to use. Most importantly, it must fit into the wider strategy of creating a digital culture. We haven’t done anything complicated, but we’ve thought carefully about how to join up all the simple stuff to make something powerful.
Step Seven: Build Partnerships Through Communication
Communication is a vital part of 21st-century learning, and the role of feedback is key.
My challenge to staff was this: if we want to improve what happens in the classroom—with and without technology— how do we develop feedback? Once we created a digitally rich environment, the challenge became how to develop feedback digitally.
We worked on multiple ways to leave digital comments, including digital voice comments. Sometimes young people don’t take in written comments, but it you leave verbal feedback—particularly if it includes a question—they have to listen, formulate an answer, and respond. This is a useful tool for interacting with teenagers.
Another interesting thing we did was to think about how we give teachers feedback. We now hold exercises several times a year, giving students an opportunity to comment on their learning experience. We then have an open, non-judgemental dialogue around that. If you can develop a culture where teachers will accept feedback and act on it, you will start to see a strong improvement in learning and teaching.
We have also used technology to enhance communication with parents. We’ve stopped the long end-of-year secondary school report and replaced it with short-sharp tracking reports four times a year that parents can access whenever they want.
Another key way we encourage partnership is through system leadership. This means that every member of staff realises that the children in someone else’s school are just as important as the children in their school. It’s vital for us to share what we do in an accessible way. Sharing knowledge is the best way to evolve teaching practice. When others adapt what we have done, we can take it and evolve it further. Everybody wins.
Intel® Education Visionary
Fellow of the Scottish College of Educational Leadership (SCEL)
Where to Get More Information
For help finding the solution that’s right for your school, visit: intel.co.uk/education