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How to run a switched-on school

In the second essay about making technology work in the school environment, Headmistress of St Mary’s, Cambridge, Charlotte Avery outlines some of the changes her school has introduced.

St Mary’s School is based in the heart of the vibrant university town of Cambridge with its reputation for cutting edge technology owing to the presence of the University, Addenbrooke’s, the Science Parks and Microsoft Research.

St Mary’s School Cambridge is a 4–18 all girls’ day and boarding Catholic Christian School with a 400-year-old tradition. Our foundress, Mary Ward, had a radical vision in the early 17th century that “Women in time to come will do much”: we hope that our community of girls and staff is the living exponents of this philosophy today, ultimately producing self-aware, grounded young women who have the confidence and the compassion to want to make a difference to the societies they encounter as they enter higher education, the world of work and relationships and possible motherhood in its various guises.

We are a very high achieving school and this summer we were delighted to buck the national trend of lowered grades at A Level and GCSE with a 5 % increase from last year in A*/A grades at A Level to 65% of all results being achieved at this level, with a similar 7% rise in A* grades at GCSE this summer.

As Headmistress, my vision for the school is to break down any stereotypical barriers about what girls are expected to do or be interested in, and find ways of exploiting the cutting edge technology and expertise in Cambridge. We attempt to have a whole school approach, which incorporates our junior school as well as our boarders, plus our staff and our parents.

At St Mary’s we do have conventional suites of desktops (four rooms’ worth) and Apple Macs which are a fantastic resource for creative subjects including Photography, Art and Music. The school has wifi throughout, including our boarding houses and all other social spaces, and recently we invested in increasing our bandwidth to increase speed as well as reliability. We have a bank of iPads available for teachers to book out.

Acknowledging the on-going costs of technology, we are now moving towards a BYOD policy “Bring Your Own Devices” into school to supplement current digital provision. Moreover, our school’s VLE, SMO (St Mary’s Online,) has a link direct to Khan Academy so that our students are able to benefit from this fantastic online learning resource to supplement the superb teaching they receive from our dedicated and highly professional teachers.

I have a Director of Digital Strategy whose remit is to oversee one of our key goals which is developing E-innovation for learning and administration. Last year, I appointed a Head of Technology who works alongside all those who teach technology at school to look at innovative, cross-curricular projects. For example, one pleasing project has been the use of electronics in our Textiles lessons which has enabled girls to produce flashing pencil cases or, for the more ambitious, flashing clothing! Our Head of Technology also works very closely with our STEM Ambassador – who promotes opportunities for Technology and Engineering beyond the normal classroom experiences or curriculum and syllabus expectations – as well as with our Enterprise Co-ordinator – who again has the brief to look out beyond the confines of the classroom to entrepreneurial endeavour and more unconventional careers.

We offer INSET (inservice training) for all our teachers which include updates from our Data Controller on data protection matters, from our pastoral team on cyber-bullying and child protection issues in general. In meetings for Heads of Department, there is a standing item for sharing good practice in-house from teachers wishing to share good (i.e. innovative/ cutting edge) practice.

Teachers go off site to share good practice with other schools and see it in action as well as attending the annual BETT show to pick up innovations that might work for St Mary’s. We tie up with national initiatives, for example Anti-Bullying Week in which we will be focusing on cyber-bullying and internet safety this year as well as Internet Awareness Week in February. We also run sessions for our parents on matters of technological innovation and e-safety.

We constantly review what we do and make changes accordingly. For example, three years ago we moved away from teaching the ECDL (European Computer Driving Licence) to a more bespoke ICT programme which meets more readily the needs and interests of our students. Last year we established a popular lunch time Computing Club. This year we are running GCSE Computer Science for the first time.

We forge links with everyone we can in Cambridge in order to benefit from cutting edge technology. We have excellent links with Microsoft Research and as a result we have been trialling their Gadgeteer programme through IT lessons and Computing Club. Through links with Cambridge University Press we were delighted to have been invited to trial their new ‘Explore Shakespeare’ app. It has been a privilege to work with both organisations and to begin to understand what makes for a good digital ‘educational’ product.

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