In the last few weeks I was lucky enough to visit one of the great success stories from the ‘academy’ school system that has been developed under the current Education Secretary. Essa Academy in Bolton nearly doubled its pass rate at GCSE within just two years and has grabbed global headlines for its innovative use of technology around the school. The school’s motto is a simple, but powerful statement: ‘All will succeed.’ The principal, Showk Badat, describes himself on Twitter as someone who can ‘only do things that are SIMPLE.’
Indeed, simplicity seems to be the common thread in all that you see as you walk around the school. The space is clean and bare, but not in a sparse sort of way; white walls and glass, as with so many modern buildings, dominates the view, but these walls and glass have something different about them – they are covered in writing. Not graffiti, but the workings of students who are allowed to utilize these spaces to work though their ideas and collaborate with their classmates.
What is fascinating about this school is the blending of this almost ‘old-fashioned’ simplicity with technology that also prides itself on that very concept. The school would not like to call itself an ‘Apple School,’ but I’m sure it isn’t from a lack of desire on the company’s part! This school demonstrates the level of success that Apple have achieved in their investment with education. Every student and every teacher has a mobile iOS device. Teachers have Macbook Airs, the students are just about to upgrade from an iPod Touch to an iPad. Apple TVs are hidden away behind countless, huge, flat-screens and there is barely an Interactive Whiteboard to be seen. And it all just works, seamlessly, without fuss, without fanfare and in a way that just makes you believe that technology in schools really can work.
There are some unnecessarily showy, but by no means unimpressive centrepieces – a huge collage of Sony TVs welcomes you as you walk into the school and a 3D projection system in a small theatre thrilled the gadget-lover in me. But beyond these things, the technology exists and functions exactly as I have believed it always should – invisibly. The technology is part of the learning experience. My own use of an Apple TV in the classroom no longer ‘impresses’ my students. Of this, I could not be more glad. Similarly, the students at Essa know what the technology can do, and so they use it and appreciate it; they know it makes their lives easier and their work better, but they do not spend time being awed or distracted by it.
When I had the chance to sit down with students across a range of years, they were buzzing with enthusiasm, but also brutal, teenage honesty; “the iPod Touch’s were a waste of money,” said one. He thought that the iPads they are about to receive will be much more useful. That’s not to say he was ungrateful; many students at the school could never have afforded such a luxury and he was one of them, but he realised that the educational value of the Touch was limited. He went on to say that it’s hard to read for any length of time off of the Touch and the range of apps were also not as good as those that they used on some of the class set of iPads around the school.
Nonetheless, what this student may not realise, is that Essa were the first school to give out Apple devices to all students and whilst the Touch might not be the final solution, it set the school on a journey that would lead them to this point. Behind all of this success and excitement is Abdul Chohan, Director of ICT at Essa. His vision has allowed technology to be embedded as the foundation upon which teaching and learning takes place.
His primary objective when setting this process in motion was to remove all the barriers that stop technology in schools working. His first goal was to give the students instant, reliable access to the internet.
By opting for the iPod Touch and steering well clear of networked laptop trolleys, he did exactly this. The rest, as they say, is history. Beyond or perhaps more appropriately, on top of, all this great technology that actually works (there is very much a philosophy of only buying equipment that you could buy in a normal shop, and this really does make sense when you consider how much more likely it is that students and teachers alike are going to be able to interact and use the technology), is a pedagogy that is as, if not more ambitious than any other aspect of the school.
Students are taught in groups defined by ability and confidence rather than age and the principal is developing a theory about how to speed up the process of cognition and development in students so that they are as ready as they could possibly be to sit exams at the end of their time in the school. There are not many schools that you visit where the principal and Director of ICT can quote scholars in the field of education.
It’s impressive. Even if it’s just part of the show they put on, there is an honesty beneath this that is reflected in what the students tell you away from the ears of their teachers – the teachers believe in what they’re doing and the students want to be there and play their part. Sadly, it is not true that the Essa model could be shoplifted and plagiarised to work in any school anywhere in the world.
Thereare some unique circumstances that conspired to create what might be considered a perfect storm for success. The Leadership Team were able to plan and design every inch of the school from scratch; that in itself is a luxury not many will be on the receiving end of. The location, the fact that the school was considered to be one of the worst in the area; these things helped. They were able to completely rebuild the ethos of the school, the faith in the community and really inspire those around them. If you teach at a good school, with good kids, the stakes are both lower and higher. Lower, in that the students will potentially appreciate the change, and value what you are trying to create, less. Higher, in that if you’re already good, what you do is going to have to be seriously impressive to win over the teachers that have taught there, and in the same way, for decades. It can be done. And it should be done.
Being a good school is not a reason to stagnate. Being a good school does not guarantee that you will remain a good school. Teaching in the same way definitely does not benefit your students. I defy any teacher to state that kids today are the same as kids 20, 30, 50 years ago, and yet so few have updated the style in which we deliver teaching and learning. The needs of students are changing, just as the world outside of school buildings is changing. No one expects you to watch TV on a black and white set which only has three channels just because that’s what TVs used to be like.
Equally a student in your school should not be expected to sit silently and absorb your lecture or PowerPoint simply because that’s the way you have always delivered that lesson. I was inspired by my visit to Essa Academy, not because everybody had technology in the palm of their hands, but because that technology set them free, allowing them to learn anywhere, anytime, without restrictions. I was inspired because I saw that every person was empowered to take responsibility for their learning. I was inspired because I saw leaders, leading by example, and taking chances by doing something new. And mostly I was inspired because I saw a school that put learning first, before anything else.
This article was also published in Edudemic magazine. For more cutting edge education news from around the world, check out the edudemic website.