Leader magazineASCL - Association of School and College Leaders

Unravelling ICT

Tangle of cables

ASCL Vice President Brian Lightman represents members' interests on the government e-strategy group. Here he outlines the problems that must be tackled if schools and colleges are able to use ICT effectively.

There is no doubt that ICT is of enormous importance to our effectiveness as school and college leaders, with the potential to help us work smarter not harder, and to automate routine tasks, freeing us up to concentrate on strategic issues.

In reality, however, ICT can be a source of frequent frustration, with the potential to achieve the opposite of these worthy aims.

The use of email illustrates this point. Email has become a second in-tray on our desks. Where used effectively it:

  • allows groups of people to brainstorm ideas and fine tune draft documents and policies.

  • enormously strengthens our ability to network.

  • greatly improves our ability to maintain communications wherever we are. As requirements for school leaders to be taken off site increase this is particularly valuable.

  • can reduce the amount of paper flying around our schools and colleges.

There are, however, many pitfalls:

  • Growing volumes of email traffic can tie school leaders to their desks rather than freeing time to meet with colleagues and be seen on the 'shop floor'.

  • Indiscriminate use of email can block inboxes with unnecessary information and attachments. This is particularly frustrating when information is circulated far more widely than necessary.

  • We can make unrealistic assumptions about how easily staff can access email. Teachers relying on shared facilities in staffrooms are particularly vulnerable.

  • Work-life balance can be completely thrown by 24-hour access and sometimes unrealistic expectations - such as the parent who emails at 11pm and phones up as soon as the switchboard opens to complain that she has not been called back.

To be smart about using email we need to think very carefully about its role within our institutions. We need clear policies and procedures in order to ensure that it is really beneficial. We need to consider how we best can operate as individuals within this changed world.

Electronic communication, however, is only a small part of the story. The same approach applies to all technology, from data collection to virtual learning environments.

In a world of personalised learning, including students and parents into the communications system is of growing importance.

In many higher education institutions, this is already a given fact. Undergraduates have access to excellent 'blackboard' software where they can access all the learning resources on their courses and use web boards and email to make contact with their tutors.

Whilst there is much good practice to share within schools and colleges, our sector is generally a long way away from a position where such facilities are available to nearly all.

There are massive training implications for staff at all levels if we are to make full use of the vast range of learning resources available to us and there will be a need for a level of external support that we cannot procure as individual institutions.

MIS systems

One critical area is data management. In the improvement process, school and college leaders rely heavily on reliable and complete data. Access to a fast, high quality management information system is of crucial importance. Where this works well:

  • Accurate and reliable data is easily accessible without the need for specialist skills.

  • Software can be interrogated quickly and create user-friendly reports tailored to the relevant audience

  • Software is capable of being updated quickly over the internet.

  • Data enables us to ask searching questions about organisational performance so that professional judgements and strategic planning are properly informed.

  • Data can be collected once, inputted quickly and easily, and used many times.

As I write this, however, I can hear the sighs from readers who fervently wish this were the case. Many school leaders are deeply frustrated by the fact that they are tied to outdated systems which were not designed for the 2006 context.

The unfortunate reality is that many of us are still dependent on software which is slow to load; very unreliable, crashing frequently and corrupting data; constantly in need of upgrading; and incapable of producing the kind of management reports we need in order to operate as we and our political masters would like us to. This is exacerbated when local authorities are tied into long-term contracts.

There is an urgent need to take a completely fresh look at MIS software in the light of current educational priorities and produce something far more fit for purpose. Integral to this is the need for high quality support.

Our school with 1,500 students has only two ICT support staff responsible for managing nearly 500 computers and all of the associated software and hardware issues. I'm sure we are not atypical.

With the best will in the world, this is a tall order which bears no comparison even with other parts of the public sector. All too often our capacity to complete basic management tasks such as timetabling and processing examination entries is undermined by this and the difficulty of accessing expert external support in a small authority area.

In the remodelled workforce, ICT expertise needs to feature prominently in job descriptions at different levels and professional support must be easily accessible.

There is a great deal we can do at institutional and local partnership level but there are many aspects that have to be coordinated centrally, or, at very least, at regional level.

Areas for improvement

Whilst a great deal of progress has been made by organisations including Becta, Naace and NCSL, there is still much to do, in particular:

  • developing effective software that addresses institutions' needs

  • developing and properly funding specialist support

  • properly funding the ICT function according to genuine need

  • ensuring that school and college leaders have access to commercially unbiased information about ICT developments

  • ensuring that schools and colleges have the ICT capacity and training to plan strategically and deliver key government priorities

This is the crux of the issue. ICT is at the centre of what we do and must be at the centre of planning and policy development at local and national level.

ASCL welcomes the fact that Becta has now been given full responsibility for implementing the government's e-strategy.

We hope this will develop in a coordinated way with an important contribution from ASCL and other key partners.

The policy document Harnessing Technology sets out six priorities for the government's e-strategy:

  • an integrated online information service for all citizens

  • integrated online personal support for children and learners

  • a collaborative approach to personalised learning activities

  • good quality ICT training and support package for practitioners

  • a leadership and development package for organisational capability in ICT

  • a common digital infrastructure to support transformation and reform

ASCL supports these while holding no illusions about the magnitude of the task ahead if they are to become a reality.

I am pleased to be representing ASCL on Becta's e-strategy group. We really must ensure that every proposed policy initiative incorporates the ICT implications at the earliest stages of planning. We will also ensure that policy makers understand at what a basic level some of these issues need to be addressed.

I would warmly welcome feedback from members on any of these points.

Brian Lightman is ASCL vice president and head of St Cyres School in the Vale of Glamorgan. He can be contacted on brian.lightman@ascl.org.uk

Leaders at BETT

Brian Lightman is presenting one of the leadership seminar sessions at the BETT Show on 10 January. He will consider some of the ways in which schools and colleges can help to avoid some of the potential pitfalls in this article. For more information about the BETT Show visit www.bettshow.com And if you are coming to BETT, make sure you visit the ASCL stand, number J55.

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