Spending money differently

Schools have to do what government demands of them; have pupils in school for certain amounts of time, safeguard them, teach them a set curriculum. But there is nothing sacrosanct about how schools should go about achieving this, if the Head has the courage to diverge from the norm. And there is no evidence that I have seen that certain ways of spending money to educate young people are better than others - except that quality of school leadership and teachers, and of pupils’ desire to learn appear to be paramount.

It is pretty clear in the UK that schools and teaching must change if we are to achieve the greater learning that young people and the UK need to remain globally competitive, with all the implications of this for prosperity and health of society. However all the national initiatives to improve literacy and numeracy over the last many years have squeezed out of the current teaching approaches most of what is possible; the rate of improvement has slowed and achievement standards nationally have reached a plateau.

Some new thinking is required. If teachers have improved what they do as much as they can, there are only two options left. Improve pupils' engagement and learning skills, and/or use teachers differently. Digital has a key role in both of these.

Changed approaches will require the money in school budgets to be spent differently.

The really big change that should happen, but which will take decades, is to fund education for younger pupils at a higher rate than for older pupils. John Abbott of Education 2000 was pointing this out 20 years ago but little has happened to move the debate forward. There is a greater custodial responsibility in educating primary age children and they are less mature learners. Getting an excellent start in education pays huge dividends in better learning in later years.

It would be good to have here some current examples of how primary schools that have normalised digital are spending their budgets differently; if you have examples please let me know. But let me offer you one from long ago, back in the 1980s.

In 1984 Ann Penfold was Head of one of the first primary schools to install a computer network. Her prime justification? - the school was spending considerable sums of money every year on teaching resources that were not being as fully used as they could be. With all the teachers having access to the network, there became no excuse for not knowing if appropriate resources existed in another year-base from one’s own. No excuse for not looking at the mapping between available resources and the teaching syllabuses. The result was considerably greater return on the investment that had been made in these resources.

Let’s move on to secondary schools. In the 1990s Wendy Davies, Head of Selly Park School (now Dame Wendy Davies) was investigating how ICT could help raise the achievement of their pupils. They decided to experiment with integrated learning systems for maths and English, with half a year group. They put 15 computers round the sides of the classrooms and the teachers split the classes, teaching half the group in the middle while the other half used the computers, swapping over half way through the lesson. The mantra became “half the time with half the pupils is better that all the time with all the pupils”. It worked for both teachers and pupils. The teachers had a smaller group to teach and the pupils had variety in the lesson with time slots that better suited their attention spans. There were some interesting effects, such as boys who felt it not 'cool' to achieve when in the whole class, achieving way beyond expectations when they were working privately on a computer.

But there was a bit of money management and good leadership behind this. The school had been running with teaching groups of 20 in this year (it was a 'difficult' school). In introducing this new approach they raised this to 25. The teachers still had a reduced teaching group size, 12/13 instead of 20, but in budget terms each teacher was teaching 25% more pupils. And this released money to pay for the computers and software.

It’s a good job it did, because after a term the teachers decided they had an equity issue. The half of the year group using the integrated learning systems in this trial, were doing so much better than the half of the year group not doing so, that the teachers decided that they could not tolerate the relative disadvantage for half the year group and demanded that extra computers were bought to equip the remainder of the classrooms being used.

Another example was Stanley Technical High School in around 2005. The school was facing very difficult problems at the time so this was not an easy school in which to implement change. They had an ICT suite in a large room, with 60 computers. Simon, the ICT teacher, carefully structured the work to be done on their learning platform so that pupils could work independently and could easily find on the network what they needed to progress when they have finished the part they were working on. They then timetabled 2 class groups at the same time and taught the group of 60 as one, with the ICT support assistant working with the pupils alongside Simon. Simon would introduce the work to the whole group, dealing with the more academic aspects, then the assistant was their main source of help when they were working independently - enabling Simon to concentrate on the students who refused to engage with the work and preferred to cause trouble.

Again, this new approach worked better for both teachers and pupils than the previous one-class-at-a-time approach. And Simon was able to gradually isolate the real trouble-makers and lead them towards learning.

I can’t help but to also mention that this was not the only innovation the school was progressing. The teachers were all equipped with Blackberries and email was increasingly being used to help the pupils with homework. Simon commented how much it was doing to improve pupils’ self esteem, to receive personal and sometimes quite long email replies to questions, much better replies than would have been possible in a busy class. But it was a statement from Simon that I will never forget that really told of the difficulties the pupils and the school faced, “Email works well, the vast majority of the pupils can get online from one of their parents’ homes”. Over half the pupils were living in single parent families.

But to get back to the topic of this story, what about the money? Well the school had changed from each class being taught by a teacher, average salary say £30K, to two classes being taught with one teacher and one assistant. And with teaching assistants having an average salary of around £15K, that amounts to a reduction in the salary bill from £60K to £45K, which is a 25% reduction.

The teaching unions may scream that this is using teaching assistants to replace teachers but that was not true. The teacher was teaching the class, albeit a much larger one, while the assistant provided the kind of practical help in using the software that they were eminently well placed to provide. And all parties found the arrangement much more satisfying and effective for learning.

We have here two examples of staffing costs being reduced by 25%. These are perhaps examples at an extreme end of what a school might wish to do, and one can easily envisage parts of transformational change requiring more teacher involvement per pupil, rather than less.

But nothing like this level of re-balancing of school budgets is necessary in order to implement the ICT necessary to enable transformation of teaching and learning approaches. For a secondary school with an annual revenue budget of say £4million, a 2.5% reduction in staffing costs overall could produce £100,000 more annually to add to the ICT budget, to fund the necessary ICT.