Monday, 27 July 2015

Changing the email culture of an organisation

There is little doubting that smart phones were the "game-changer" when it comes to email - once your work emails were on the phone there was no getting away from them . . . or indeed from work. For those of us who are technically minded achieving a work-life balance took on a new dimension.
Work emails coming through 'out of hours' have an ability to pull you instantly away from your family, friends and relaxation, back to the office. The arrival of a work email in your inbox can ruin an evening or weekend. They put the ball back in your court - they demand action, whether that be thought, a phone call, or (just!) the time to reply. One of the biggest problems with emails is that they are like a virus, they spawn more emails - they demand replies and very soon everyone is sending emails to each other. The consequence is that the whole tempo of the organisation speeds up to the point where it is out of control and people simply cannot cope any more.
The 1900 to 0700 Curfew 
Berkhamsted School is like most other organisations: emails came through morning, noon and night. We took the view in September 2013, that we would limit our internal email traffic to weekdays between 0700 and 1900 only. This principle was extended to parents in March 2015 - parents were informed that any emails sent outside 'office hours' would be dealt with the next working day. There is nothing to stop colleagues from drafting replies outside these times, so long as they use the 'delayed delivery' function in Outlook (Options - Delay Delivery). 
The key principle here is that we all to manage our own time as we see fit, but that it is wrong to put the ball into a colleague's court by sending an email outside the working day.
The Results
Two years on, the volume of email traffic has reduced and emails are generally more considered - there are fewer late night alcohol induced rants. Most importantly there has been a shift in mindset: there has been a cultural shift in the moral 'high ground' colleagues no longer feel guilty not replying to an email - colleagues now feel guilty for sending them. Colleagues now feel that it is acceptable to ignore evening and weekend emails. When colleagues break the curfew, it is quite common for them to preface their emails with "I'm sorry to break the curfew, but . . . ", which can be quite endearing when the 'but' is an enthusiastic member of the coaching staff sharing the weekend success of a school sports team.
The result is that the school is calmer. We are working smarter not longer. The whole exercise has meant that staff feel valued. Achieving a term-time work-life balance in our school community remains a challenge, but we have taken one small step in the right direction, and that is appreciated by us all.
Key Lessons learned
  • A change in email culture needs to be driven from the top - school leaders need to be role models and create a culture where teachers 'have permission' to ignore 'out of hours' email traffic. It is well known that employees follow the lead of senior figures in organisations in order to get on: as School Principal, I made a point of activating my 'out of office' notification at weekends.
  • Breaches of the curfew need to be followed up with an informal conversation - particularly when the perpetrators are in the SLT.
  • Staff need training in how to use the 'Delayed Delivery' feature in Outlook.

Monday, 6 July 2015

The Rising Sun - A personal portrait of my favourite place in Berkhamsted

The Riser is the guardian of the canal: its beer garden - the towpath; its children's playground and the best seats in the house - the lock-gates, the huge beams with which the passing tourist captains grapple, dislocating the locals in the process. 
All life is welcome here. Professional escapists brush shoulders with those looking for a temporary escape from the strain of their professions. It is equally a favourite port of call for the boat people who move home at fortnightly intervals up and down The Grand Union, as it is for the regulars on the 1751 from Euston. At weekends these worlds combine in a festival atmosphere of acceptance and inclusion. Designer clothes are abandoned in preference to a wardrobe drawn from outdated days of cool. This is a place without pretense or pretension, a place where no one puts up a facade, a place to be oneself. Here the finest things are savoured for what they are rather than for what they symbolise: Ales (real, of course), scrumpy, house wines, and even cigars and snuff. 
Entertainment is provided in the form of a passing peloton, side-tracked from their exertions by the prospect of quality refreshment. Their bikes stacked precariously next the murky lock waters, they argue about whose round it is and, over the second pint, swap excuses that are unlikely to convince their long-suffering wives. 
Do people make places? Or do places make people? Either way, some places are special because they bring the best out of people - oh that we could all live life like we do at The Rising Sun on a sunny Summer's afternoon.

Thanks to Alastair Harrison, @AlastairHarriso - an inspirational English Teacher at Berkhamsted School - who encouraged me to write this piece - over a pint at The Kings Arms!

Saturday, 16 May 2015

Elective use of laptops in examinations - Times Article

Article published in The Times 16/05/2015 on Berkhamsted School's introduction of elective use of laptops in public examinations.

Loophole allows students to use laptops in exams 

Nicola Woolcock Education Correspondent

Teenagers at an independent school will use laptops to sit some GCSEs and A levels this year, after their head teacher figured out a loophole to excuse them from hours of handwritten examinations.
The move could trigger a revolution in exams, speeding up the demise of the traditional test papers that are sat by about a million pupils each year.
Mark Steed, the headmaster of Berkhamsted School in Hertfordshire, said that while schools taught using 21st-century technology, they were forced to revert to outdated methods for exams. Thirteen of his pupils have spent the past two years using only laptops in subjects such as English, history and religious studies, rather than taking handwritten notes. This means that exam boards must allow them to use laptops, Mr Steed said, as it is recognised as their “normal way of working”. Eight took exams this way last year, the first year the school gave pupils the opportunity to do so. Until now, most schools have allowed only pupils with special needs to use technology in exams, complying with regulations laid down by the Joint Council of Qualifications, which represents exam boards. However, a clause in its guidance says:
“Centres [schools] are allowed to provide a word processor, with the spelling and grammar check/predictive text disabled, to a candidate where it is their normal way of working within the centre.” 
Berkhamsted School plans to broaden the practice in the next few years and other independent schools could follow suit. It comes amid growing concerns about children being marked down for illegible handwriting in exams, as they are not used to writing at length.
Mr Steed said:
“At present, new technologies are helping young people to learn better both in and out of the classroom, but then we transport them through time back to the 1930s to make them sit an examination. No wonder there is scepticism about the value of new technologies in education when the exam system is forcing us to use them with one hand tied behind our back.” 
He said that tablet and app-based learning was beginning to transform education for pupils aged four to 14, but then schools got cold feet when it came to GCSEs and A levels.
“As long as the exam boards and universities require young people to sit formal examinations in rows, in silence and without access to technology as a point of reference, then their schooling will inevitably devote significant time and energy into training them to excel in those conditions,”
Peter Hamilton, the chairman of the Headmasters’ and Headmistresses’ Conference academic policy committee, said: “It could be a very interesting way of working in the future.”

Sunday, 10 May 2015

A ‘Customer-focused School’ - Some thoughts on school marketing and why, how and when we should listen to parents.

My opening address at the AMDIS Conference at The Belfry on Monday 11th. May 2015.

From the conference programme:
In his opening address, Mark Steed explores the concept of a "customer-focused school". The presentation will look at how schools, through collecting data about their current and prospective parents, can gain customer insight and thus ensure sustainable growth. Using practical examples from Barkhamsted School, Mark will discuss ways in which schools can develop what they have to offer to create new demand by opening up new markets; and how far schools should go in listening to their parents.

Friday, 1 May 2015

Education, New Technologies and the Elephant in the Examination Hall

Assess the potential for technology-enabled innovation in products/services and processes in your organisation: 
Thus ran the assignment question for the 'Innovation and Technology module' of the Executive Masters in Management course that I am studying with Ashridge Business School.

What is the potential for technology-enabled innovation in Secondary Education?
Well it's enormous - young people learning collaboratively, being creative in their learning, sharing apps, learning through gaming and so on. But hold on .. . . . . . . (and it's not me putting the breaks on here) . . . . . the potential for technology-enabled innovation in secondary education is currently limited by one significant external factor – the nature of British examination system. 
At present, new technologies are helping young people to learn better both in and out of the classroom - but then we take them away from their collaborative connected learning environment, and transport them through time back to the 1930s to make them sit an examination. No wonder there is skepticism about the value of new technologies in education when the exam system is forcing us to use them with one hand tied behind out back. 
Whilst tablet and app-based learning is beginning to transform education at KS1, KS2 and KS3, the whole process gets stuck there; and schools, understandably, get cold feet when is comes to KS4 and KS5. So long the Exam Boards (and Universities) require young people to sit formal examinations in rows, in silence, without access to technology (as a point of reference), then the nature of the schooling that takes place prior to those exams will inevitably devote significant time and energy into training them to excel in those conditions. Rather than getting the most out of the new technologies available to them, quite understandably, schools are harnessing new C21 technologies to develop C20 skills in order to sit C20 examinations. Thus it is no surprise that, when given a totally free choice of device to bring into school, 98% of Berkhamstedians from Y10 to Y13 choose a laptop. This is automation not transformation.
Online Examinations? 
Changes in examination board regulations mean that since Summer 2013 pupils who do not have a Specific Learning Difficulty who use a laptop as their "normal way of working" accrue a right to use laptops in public examinations: 
“Centres are allowed to provide a word processor with the spelling and grammar check/ predictive text disabled to a candidate where it is their normal way of working within the centre, unless an awarding body’s specification says otherwise. This also includes an electronic brailler, an iPad or a pc tablet.” JCQ General and Vocational Qualifications, Instructions for conducting examinations 1 September 2012 to 31 August 2013. Section 8.8 p.24;  (My emphasis) 
There is no inherent advantage in using laptops. The laptops have to be provided by the centre, the spell check has to be disabled and the pupils get no additional time. Parents are charged £100 for the provision of a 'clean' exam-ready laptop - this cost covers mocks and Summer exams. 
However, this is recognition by JCQ and the Exam Boards that laptops are the normal way of working for some pupils and that it would be penalising them not to allow them to sit exams using a laptop. ">It is for each school to define 'normal way of working'.
At Berkhamsted, we took the view that the pupil had to use the laptop in lessons and for homework for the length of their GCSE, AS or A2 course. As a consequence of this change, this year 13 Berkhamstedians (eight boys and five girls) have chosen to sit a proportion of their GCSEs and A-levels on a laptop under the terms of these regulations, mainly in those subjects which require extended pieces of writing such as English, History and Religious Studies. Small steps forward, but, again, this is automation not transformation.
Berkhamsted School Elective Laptop Use in Exams 2014 and 2015
Google in Exams? 
Mark Dawe, chief executive of OCR, argued that pupils should have access to the Internet when doing examinations on the basis that memorising reams of information was “not how the modern world works” (See 'Let students use websites during examinations' Times 01/05/2015). He is quite right. This is not a new debate, I recall a debate within the Cambridge Theology faculty when I was a student, as to whether or not undergraduates should be allowed to have a bible in their examinations. Access to Google is not an enormous step on from 'open book' English Literature examinations that were part of A-level English for many years. It all comes down to what we are testing here - knowledge of facts? the ability to put an argument together? or the ability to research?
Concerns about cheating in exams which have internet access are overstated. No one here is advocating that pupils be allowed to communications with others during exams. Key-stroke capture (which records what each candidate did whilst online) and plagiarism software, such as Turnitin, provide the means and method to deter and police the issues of access to the Internet.

The current examination hall reflects a time that has passed. There is little doubt that the examination system needs to change and will change. 
None of us works that way anymore. We work in teams. We work on shared documents. We work with people the other side of room - and the other side of the world. We run our diaries, take notes and communicate with other through our phones, our tablets, our laptops and our desktops. Indeed of most of the written notes we make end up on the fridge! When you last needed a fact, or a quote, or to check a spelling, did you pull an a encyclopedia, the Oxford Dictionary of Quotations or the OED off the shelf? or did you Google or Wikipedia it? Social media has meant that our professional networks include people we have never met and are never likely to meet. LinkedIn is replacing business cards (at least in the West!); and we share ideas and take part in debates across continents. We work differently, and, because of that, we should teach, learn and assess differently.
So what will the school and university assessment system of the future look like? 
If the future assessment system is to prepare young people for the demands of the C21 workplace (or indeed C21 academia), it is likely that there will be greater component of teamwork and collaborative working. Dissertations, projects, videos and presentations (think Screencast rather than PowerPoint) are likely to be a greater proportion of the overall assessment. This has already happened in some areas - the Ashridge MBA programme abandoned its final examination a number of years ago and now incorporates a number of practical assessments - such as 'live case' consultancy exercises - rather than assessing totally through extended essays and exams. 
Whilst traditional Harvard-referenced Dissertations assessing the skills of critical analysis and evaluation may remain as one component in a portfolio, we are likely to see a greater range of assignments where creativity, visual literacy and 'the ability to sell an idea' are likely to be valued skills, 
The end of examinations? It is very likely that universities and employers will still want a qualification system that identifies and distills out individual performance where a least part of the assessment process is conducted against the clock, It is almost certain that these will be online and will be much more like the tests that top law and accountancy firms are using as the first round of their employment screening process. Typically these give the candidate some key texts and data which they have a specific period of time to digest, before writing a report against the clock drawing on these sources. So it is a safe bet that exams are here to stay.

Is this new assessment system really that radical? These ideas do not really represent as radical a shift in our thinking as might at first be seen. Afterall, our present examination GCSE and A-level examination system already has some of the components of C21 examination: we examine individuals on their team performance in Drama and Sport; we have open book examinations in English Lit and we pre-release material in Art to allow A-level Art candidates to research weeks in advance of their final practical exam.

Monday, 20 April 2015

Wearable Tech Policy for School

At Berkhamsted, we are committed to pupils using mobiles devices to support their learning through appropriate use in school and at home. Alongside this, we believe that we have an educational responsibility to help young people manage how and when they use new technologies and thus have always taken an approach that we would rather 'educate' than 'ban',
So working within this context, the Senior Leadership Team this afternoon grappled with the thorny issue of how we approach the issue of 'Wearable Technology' (such as the Apple Watch) in school. It was a thoughtful and lively debate:
On one level, it would appear that there is little difference between having a fully connected mobile device in one's pocket and on one's wrist, so why the fuss?
Well, we decided that there are two reasons why a watch poses additional issues:
  1. First, from a teacher's perspective, wearable technology is very difficult to police.  When necessary, it is relatively easy for a teacher to say 'your phone needs to be in your pocket/bag', it becomes much more difficult to ask the class to remove their watches.
  2. Secondly, from a pupil's perspective, wearable technology is less easy to ignore. The buzz of a phone on vibrate mode in a pocket or bag is out of sight and sometimes earshot - whereas the temptation to catch up on a text/ or social media update is almost impossible to ignore when it's on your wrist.
So, we took a middle way: not banning, but discouraging wearable technology in school: our mobile device policy now has an additional paragraph as follows:

Berkhamsted School Wearable Tech Policy:
  1. If Wearable Tech is worn in lessons or in public areas around the school, the ‘Do not disturb’/’flight mode’ should be activated.
  2. Wearable Tech must not be worn in exams as this will result in disqualification. Exam Regulations do not allow any device capable of mobile communication. 
  3. Our strong advice is that pupils should not bring Wearable Tech devices to school, because they are likely to be a greater distraction than other mobile devices. 
  4. If a Wearable Tech device is deemed by the teacher to be causing a distraction around school, it is liable to confiscation until the end of the school day.

Saturday, 21 March 2015

Appraisal and Performance Management in Schools - A practical approach

A presentation given as part of the leadership strand at TLAB15 on Saturday 21st March 2015


Monday, 2 March 2015

How MOOCs, Tablets and Apps are changing how we teach

Presentation given at The Society of Heads Annual Conference at Whittlebury Hall, Northamptonshire on Tuesday 3rd March, 2015


Friday, 13 February 2015

How to Conduct a Teacher Appraisal

An INSET given to Heads of Department on how to conduct a teacher appraisal


Saturday, 17 January 2015

What to look for in a School Management Information System (MIS)

School Management Information Systems (MIS) have developed over the past twenty years from relatively rudimentary databases that held parental data into the complex integrated systems now available. Today School MIS are asked to perform a range of key tasks including admissions, pupil tracking, discipline, reporting, fee billing, HR and a range of other functions. Choosing a School MIS is one of the most far-reaching decisions that the senior team will make for it has a direct impact on the operational efficiency of the organisation. However, because each school has its own structure, management style, priorities and is at a different stage of organisational maturity, it is very likely that no single MIS will be perfect. Few schools can afford to commission a bespoke MIS and off-the-peg solutions always entail a degree of compromise. 
Reticence to Change Schools are understandably reticent to change MIS for a number of reasons. First, it is costly both financially and in terms of organisational time and energy; secondly, a new MIS entails an enormous amount of training of both administrative and teaching staff; and thirdly, a new MIS usually entails a short period when organisational performance drops as key personnel get used to the new system. Thus it is common for schools to live with an under-performing MIS for a number of years, before it reaches the ‘tipping point’ at which the short term inconvenience of changing MIS outweighs the ongoing inefficiencies. 
Consider carefully who makes the decision The range of tasks that a modern MIS is asked to perform inevitably means that different users value those aspects of an MIS’ functionality that relate to their own area: the finance department typically emphasising the importance of fee billing, the Director of Studies - pupil tracking, the teachers – reporting and so on. Because different MIS have different strengths and weakness, the process of choosing an MIS can be problematic if one area of the school has a disproportionate say in the decision. Senior Leaders should beware the ‘silo mentality’: many a school Bursar has driven the decision over the choice of MIS without any regard to the academic needs of the school. All the key stakeholders (finance team, administrators, teachers and parents) need to have input into the decision-making process - the choice of an MIS should be a whole-school decision. 
Strengths and Weaknesses – Remember their roots There is no perfect MIS – they all have relative strengths and weaknesses. One way to understand these is to look at how each of the products started life and how they have evolved to what is on offer today. SIMS was founded on school admin needs in the UK state sector where timetabling and monitoring attendance/truancy were key; WCBS’s 3Sys and Double First’s Engage began their lives as accounts packages, which developed school administration modules and now have become integrated MIS; whereas iSAMS was initially designed from a teachers’ perspective as a bespoke product focusing on academic assessment and reporting. Today all of these products have developed and increased functionality, but it is worth bearing in mind where they have come from, as it typically explains why administrators favour SIMS, bursars and finance departments like 3Sys and Engage, and why teachers like iSAMS
Two Approaches: There are broadly two approaches to MIS. Schools are faced with a choice between the ease of use of the integrated modules and the additional functionality of the free-standing specialist software package. 
  1. Approach One: MIS Core + modules 
    All modern MIS are modular, offering a core database function to which schools can add modules that perform other functions: timetabling, tracking, reporting, internal and external examinations, mark books, admissions, attendance, co-curricular and so on. The advantages of the ‘core + module’ approach allows schools to develop their use of the MIS at their own pace and that there are no compatibility issues of integrating the MIS with software produced by different firms. 
  2. Approach Two: MIS Core + specialist software 
    The problem with the MIS Core + modules approach is that off-the-peg modules are never going to be as good as free-standing specialist software packages. Specialist software companies inevitably can devote more time to developing their area. For example, specialist timetabling software might make constructing the timetable easier for the admin team, but it may not be as easy to input and access data. The primary role of the MIS in this approach is to hold central data and to integrate the various “best-of-breed” specialist packages, which is much easier said than done. 
Compatibility and Integration When researching MIS, one of the most important areas to investigate is the extent to which their product is compatible with other specialist products. Key questions are: 
  • How easy is it to move data between the MIS and specialist packages? 
  • Does the MIS support team provide a specific Application Program Interface (API) to facilitate this? (These are a set of protocols and routines which integrate two software packages to enable them to share data seamlessly.) 
Look to the Future Few schools are likely to change MIS more often than every ten years. Those making the decision need to consider that there will be significant software developments within the lifetime of the new MIS. A closed system might meet today’s needs, but it is very unlikely to be fit for purpose in five years’ time if it cannot integrate with other products. Multi-browser products that can flex and integrate with other systems are more likely continue delivering functionality in the mid-2020s. 
And so to the Cloud It is almost certain that during the next ten years schools will migrate all of their data to the Cloud. It will do this for two reasons: first, it will be cheaper; secondly, it will make upgrades and data management easier for the MIS providers to service their products. This is available now, but, at present, schools are reticent to trust their data to remote, off-site servers. This is no different to schools a hundred years ago, most of whom had their own electricity generators because they didn’t trust the National Grid. In ten years’ time I suspect that we find the idea of on-site server rooms, as anachronistic as we do on-site electricity generators.  

Published in the Independent Schools Magazine February 2015 p.12