How are independent schools embracing technology?

Jo Golding attends Bett to find out how, and why, independent schools are implementing technology into their classrooms

With so much to see, hear and do at Bett, the event which brings together thousands of edtech solutions every year, it is hard to pick out just a couple of highlights. However, there were two independent schools in particular that took to the stage to share their own tech stories.

With one showing that technology can make a significant difference to SEN students’ self-esteem, and another highlighting the importance of cyber attack prevention, there are lessons independent schools can learn from both.

Making the impossible possible

Westmorland School is an independent SEN school catering for children aged 5–11 with special educational needs around social communication and emotional mental health.

After a recommendation from Ofsted to step up its technology offering, Westmorland knew something had to change. It made technology advancement part of its school improvement process and after getting the backing from governors, parents/carers and pupils, the school invested in a range of Apple technology – and hasn’t looked back since.

Everyone is scared of cyber attacks but if you follow best practice, have back-ups in place and have your access control set-up properly, it shouldn’t be a massive threat

Robert Lynas, deputy headteacher, said: “All 56 of our pupils have an iPad and every classroom has been equipped with an Apple TV, we’ve even got some in communal areas. We’ve also put iMacs in classrooms to aid learning. Our school has changed dramatically with the use of technology. We’ve now been awarded as an Apple Distinguished School.”

He explained further what this meant to children at Westmorland, who haven’t always had a smooth journey in education: “A lot of our children have been in mainstream schools, sometimes more than one, and it’s broken down for whatever reason. Since coming to our school, with our use of technology to make the impossible possible, they’re now succeeding.”

Lynas said the technology allows the children to develop greater resilience and a positive attitude to learning. After implementing the technology across the school, Ofsted came back and were “blown away” by the changes.


Bett figures

Visitors: 34,000 (12,000 school leaders)

Exhibitors: 800 (300 new)

Speakers: 200

Location: ExCeL London


Ruth Smith, computing and new technologies leader at Westmorland and an Apple Distinguished Educator, said: “A pupil who has poorly developed fine motor skills will have a significant barrier to their learning. They’ll struggle with writing and other tasks. This can lead to behavioural incidents and negative attitudes towards learning. This is where we put the iPad in place. They can redefine their learning with typing, video and sound.

“With the learning difficulties that our pupils have, many of them have topics of key interest and by using the iPad in a technology-rich environment, we’re able to tap into those interests. It allows our teaching to be adapted to the children. It also allows us to adapt the work to the ability of the child.”

The children now create their own vlog each week on current affairs, which Lynas said has developed the students’ self-esteem.

An interesting theme this year at Bett was teacher workloads. Lynas addressed this by answering the question of whether the iPads increase his workload. “Yes, it does because our pupils were sitting with their heads down not engaging before. If my workload has to increase so the children are actively engaging in lessons, then that’s a positive thing,” he said.


You may also be interested in: Bett is an international concern, of course, with Bett Asia having concluded just this week


Building resilience

The Royal Hospital School is another independent school that shared its story at this year’s Bett to speak about cyber security.

Hamish Mackenzie, head of digital strategy and learning, said: “In 2014 our school relied heavily on local infrastructure. We had a big server room on the first floor, which housed all of our MIS, registers, files and desktop profiles.

“We tried to protect it the best we could with air conditioning, regular back-ups and protocols in place. What we didn’t do was check the valley gutter on the roof space above the server room. After a big storm in 2014, water overflowed from the gutter straight through the server rack. We lost everything – our files, registers and significant amounts of data. We were fortunate in that it was before a holiday period, which gave us the chance to build a new system.”

The flood cost over £74,000 in terms of equipment replacement, as well as lost productivity. It also stimulated a review of the school’s IT resilience.

The Royal Hospital School transitioned its systems to the cloud, took on further network bandwidth and also invested in a disaster-recovery facility – a parallel alternative location for network connections, switches, servers and back-up.

Another part of rebuilding was training. Mackenzie said: “The system is only as good as the behaviour of its users.” This meant password policies and CPD to make staff realise that it is also their responsibility to protect the system.

Robert Lynas: “Our school has changed dramatically with the use of technology”

The school also built cyber security into the curriculum, teaching students about passwords, coding, digital citizenship and cyber bullying. Mackenzie said it gives students the skills they need to thrive online, while making the school’s systems more secure at the same time.

“We engaged with South West Grid for Learning’s 360-degree safe tool. I would really encourage other schools to use it. It allows an institution to identify the stakeholders, systems and processes involved in safeguarding children in online spaces.”

However, after taking significant steps to rebuild, the school was targeted with a ransomware attack. Luckily it was able to identify the affected areas and went forward with minimal disruption, having put a much more robust system in place after the flood.

Many of our pupils have topics of key interest and by using the iPad in a technology-rich environment, we’re able to tap into those interests

“Everyone is scared of cyber attacks but if you follow best practice, have back-ups in place and have your access control set-up properly, it shouldn’t be a massive threat,” said Alex Davidson, IS manager at The Royal Hospital School.

Putting a strong technology system in place can be time-consuming and costly. However, with significant improvements to the safety of the school and its data, is it not a worthwhile investment?

There were thousands of products and services at Bett to help schools become outstanding, whether you’re an independent or state school.

Perhaps next year you too will be sharing your school’s success story.

Bett will return in 2020 from 22–25 January. Find out more at bettshow.com.