Case study: In pursuit of ICT excellence

Independent schools are well known for their pursuit of ICT excellence. We speak to Katie Douglass, director of ICT at St Paul’s London, about her school’s famous entrepreneurial spirit and how expectations continue to be exceeded

St Paul’s School, London, is famed for educational excellence, and for good reason. A level results for A* and A grades from the last five years give an instant insight into why their exceptional reputation has been sustained for so long: 2012 (88%), 2013 (86%), 2014 (86.4%), 2015 (81.4%), 2016 (84.9%). State of the art science, sport, drama and teaching facilities are also set to transform the school, with an overhaul of infrastructure set for completion in 2019, the result of an incredible £77m investment.

A rockstar performance

How then does ICT fit into this sphere of distinction? For starters, Katie Douglass says that her predecessor, David Smith, has to be credited with how ICT has been successfully managed over the past decade, whilst pointing out that she is very keen to continue his good work. “I’m always looking at new ways of working but I think that, generally speaking, what pupils do in a school reflects the wider ethos of the school.” If that’s true, it’s fair to suggest St Paul’s embraces an ethos of telling pupils ‘the world is their oyster’ and encouraging them to break boundaries. Many pupils have been imbued with an entrepreneurial curiosity that has led to their ascent into the wider business world. At times, Katie says, the difficulty for the school is keeping pace with such curiosity and imagination.

Take the example of former students and co-founders of VLE Firefly, Simon Hay and Joe Mathewson. “They have since left the school and gone on to turn their creation into a very successful business,” Katie says. “We still use Firefly in the school – the first to ever do so, of course, and we can’t forget the success of Sam and Dan Houser who created Rockstar Games while at St Paul’s.” It’s estimated that VLE Firefly is used by over 250 schools in the UK while, in the computer gaming industry, Rockstar Games is widely recognised as one of the most creative and successful brands of its kind.

Practical procurement

What provisions are made, then, for current pupils to have access to the very best ICT resources? “One of the most important things we have is a resilient, fast, internet connection that goes across the school; it’s at least one gigabyte,” Katie says. She also mentions that, for added security, the school has a second internet connection which is used as a backup to the primary connection and can be relied upon in an emergency or if there are connectivity problems. In addition to their online learning environment pupils and staff alike can gain remote access to their school files through a document-sharing platform. A dedicated IT support team are on hand to deal with any minor or major network issues – offering a round-the clock-service.

Procurement, of course, stands as a key process for ICT management and begins at St Paul’s with a request to all departments to submit bids for new resources. “These bids then come before our ICT committee which includes myself, our director of studies, our ICT support manager and other key members of staff. We then discuss and debate whether the bid is worth taking forward,” Kate explains. “We compile all that information and it’s then passed to our executive committee in the form of one big bid and is subsequently put before our governors for approval.” Departmental investigations into which equipment should be targeted often begin at a variety of locations. “Staff will visit Bett and look at the new releases or they will see something on Twitter and think, ‘That looks really cool!’,” Katie comments.

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Calling all collaborators

Financial decision-making can, however, be challenging, particularly when new technologies are constantly changing the ways in which schools are educating their pupils. Indeed, Katie says that this is one of the bigger issues facing ICT departments more broadly. “One minute you could be spending thousands of pounds on the latest gadget but two years later its obsolete because something else has been introduced to the market. It can be very difficult to keep up.” Yet, it’s clear the problem is far from unmanageable despite such change and is currently being dealt with effectively at St Paul’s. “We are adapting by pushing more and more applications online because these update much more quickly than static software,” Katie says. “For example, we currently use a piece of 3D modelling software which is updated every year but, again, it’s a piece of static software that has to be installed by computer. I’m already starting to look at an alternative that is exactly the same as our current software but is completely in the cloud.”

As well as keeping one eye on how best to manage technological change, Katie points out that departmental collaboration will be the main force behind change in St Pauls. “We are trying to ensure there’s greater cross-department collaboration by having each department give seminars to the rest of the staff about what they are doing in their respective departments and so facilitate a skills and knowledge transfer,” she says. In practice this is expected to work through a series of seminars with each department showcasing their work to the whole school and will be followed up with smaller, supplementary sessions where staff are free to continue discussions on a one-to-one basis with Katie or another relevant member of ICT staff. The programme is very much CPD-centred and promises to not only redefine best teaching and learning practice within the school but also to continue St Paul’s pursuit of ICT excellence!

Fast Facts

  • St Paul’s, London, is a 13-18 all-boys school, home to 910 day students and 30 boarding
  • Eligibility for admission to the school includes an ISEB pre-test
  • Former pupils include poet John Milton, diarist Samuel Pepys and Conservative MP George Osborne

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