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Anyone who has been out of the education system for a considerable amount of time and walks into a school classroom would be amazed at how things have changed but stepping into one at Broadclyst Community Primary School is like time travelling into the future.
On its wall are not one but multiple interactive screens for teaching, each child has their own tablet and a digital pen at their allocated seat, and the ceiling is dotted with speakers to give an immersive surround sound.
Its headteacher produces a regular video blog to keep parents updated along with parent apps, virtual tours are offered of the school, school meetings are broadcasted live and traditional parents’ evenings can also be conducted online via a live link with teachers for those parents who can’t make it into school.
It’s little wonder then its school places are always oversubscribed, but alongside all the praise it gets for leading the way for schools in Devon and across the country, with it inevitably comes concerns about whether its pupils are losing out traditional skills such as handwriting skills.
Keen to assure that technology is used as a tool rather than a replacement for its traditional teaching and learning methods is Jonathan Bishop.
Having worked at the school for nearly 25 years he has been involved in every step of its technology journey, and the past nine years have been in the role of headteacher, and now executive headteacher within Cornerstone Academy Trust.
He said: “In my 25 years here we have always endeavoured to embrace the latest technologies and to use them as a tool to support both teaching and learning.
“Therefore, we have always been at the cutting edge of not just embedding some of the latest technology into school but utilising it within their learning.
“We have never seen it as a replacement for teachers or other learning tools because technology is not the answer to everything. Reading, writing and mathematics are core skills that are needed to unlock the wider curriculum.
“We still learn our times tables every day as it’s a functional skill they need to know. We do the same SATs tests on paper the same as every other school in the country, without technology.
“We have never had a computer room in the school because we’ve always seen technology as being a tool in the hands of children and teachers within the classroom.
“That doesn’t mean we do everything on computers though. We have created a broad, balanced, enriched and personalised curriculum to meet the needs of all children. The tools to do this are just different today.
“Our pupils learn in the same traditional ways, but they have a computer as well as pen, pencil and ruler. We utilise lots of techniques, new and old, to ensure high quality teaching.”
This year the school has been awarded Microsoft Showcase School Status, an accolade only bestowed upon around 30 other schools in the country. Despite the school’s good links with the company it does not provide the school’s equipment.
Instead it comes out of its carefully planned budget. To ensure there is a replenishment programme, the school leases its equipment so that they always have the most current products.
It is also recognised as a Teaching School, an English and Science Hub by the Department for Education which means it is one of few schools across the country to be a centre of excellence offering training and professional development to other schools.
At Broadclyst, pupils from Year 3 upwards are each given tablet PC’s that are touch screen devices that provide the full power of the PC with the mobility of a tablet. The technology they are using is a Microsoft Surface used with a digital pen.
Its younger age groups also have access to the same devices but not to the same 1:1 ratio.
Mr Bishop said: “Children see devices as part of their life so it doesn’t have the ‘wow’ factor of them being on their desk. They very much look forward to playing a football match the same as they do sitting down in a hi-tech room. To them it’s just normal.
“There are no worries about them having too much screen time because it’s just a tool within their daily life and therefore it’s about having things in balance.”
Classrooms have multiple screens so that wherever they are sitting they can see what the teacher is showing them.
The online learning environment is built using Microsoft Teams, a tool with Office365 that combines workplace chat, video meetings, notes and digital inking, and the usual office applications. One of these apps is Microsoft OneNote that is used by teachers to plan and deliver teaching resources that children can access from their device in the classroom or from home.
Mr Bishop said: “Writing on the tablet is the equivalent to writing on a chalkboard, but technology allows it to be wirelessly projected onto the multiple screens in the room and then synchronised to each child’s device. The board notes are then on the desk in front of the child to use while they work, maybe using a pen into their exercise book. It’s about blending the environment of the new and old.
“When pupils go home they can log on to their family laptop as all the learning resources are then available from the cloud through Office365 as they access OneNote via the web browser. They can find work taught that has been taught, activities they have to do and can continue with their learning from home.
“Parents can also log on with their child to see what they have been learning at school. We offer free parent training to help them support their child’s learning at home.”
Technology is also used to monitor each child’s individual progress throughout the school year.
Pupils receive verbal feedback by voice or video recordings. To track progress the children complete online assessments where the outcomes are analysed digitally and areas for development flagged.
Mr Bishop said: “It creates assessments which are very unique, and we are able to see precisely who has mastered the concepts, what they next need to, and who needs extra input.”
The school is also very proud of its ‘connected global projects’. For the fifth year it is launching its annual Year 6 Global Enterprise Competition.
The year is split into 10 teams who are tasked with creating a product they have to research, design, create a prototype, undertake market research and then take to the Dragon’s Den to get seed funding so that they might run their own company. They produce products such as t-shirts, cookies or greeting cards.
The enterprise challenge also seems them use the school’s television studio to create adverts.
The process takes six months and the Dragon’s Den is Mr Bishop’s office where groups have to convince him to invest in their project.
The groups don’t just have to compete against each other but more than 20 other schools worldwide from Europe to Israel to America who have joined the school’s competition, and the ultimate judge is Microsoft themselves.
Mr Bishop said: “It shows how a little school in Broadclyst has come up with an education opportunity which is now enjoyed globally with over 6,000 pupils from primary and secondary schools from over 20 schools globally taking part.
“It is one example of how engaging our curriculum is.”
When it comes to exam results, the school not only achieves national standards but often far exceeds them.
Mr Bishop said: “We get really good results and are within the top five to 20 per cent of schools. I have just received a letter from the school’s minister to congratulate us for being in the top four per cent of schools for the phonics outcomes last year."
Although the school is widely known for its superior technology, there is far more to it than just developing the next generation of ‘computer geeks’.
It also offers nearly 30 after school extra curricular activities including creative arts clubs, musical theatre, sporting clubs like football as well as coding and media clubs.
Mr Bishop said: “But what we are doing is personalising a curriculum to meet individual needs of each child and yet using collaborative approach that develops wider skills, which means children not only want to come to school, but are able to access a curriculum that is open ended, purposeful and challenging enough for even the most able child.”
The school is part of the he Cornerstone Multi-Academy Trust (TCAT) which also includes Westclyst Community Primary School, which is temporarily based on the Broadclyst site.
North Devon based Yeo Valley Primary School will be shortly joining, and the academy has been chosen to build an additional primary school in the Monkerton area, which will open in 2020.
Also part of the trust is the Cornerstone Teaching School, providing teacher training, professional learning, leadership development and school-to-school support at both primary and secondary levels.