Headteacher Simon Uttley explains how he transformed a ‘notice to improve’ school to one of international status with ‘exceptional leadership’ with help from a sophisticated digital environment

St Paul’s Catholic College, a DCSF-designated technology college is based in Sunbury, Surrey. Totalling 1,050 pupils aged 11 to 19 years and 120 staff, the school attracts students from a wide range of both relatively prosperous and less affluent areas in the north of Surrey and west London. We aim to be the first choice Catholic school in the region and endeavour to ensure that all our students receive high-quality education in the field of technology. We also aim for the whole school – students, staff, parents and governors – to benefit from the specialist status.

The challenge
St Paul’s is a community of learning where we aim to provide a happy and stimulating environment for both staff and pupils. Having received a notice to improve 18 months ago, due to the poor academic standards and a lacklustre commitment to technology college status, as headteacher I had a sizeable task ahead. St Paul’s was a school with no shared vision, so it was paramount that we ensured the finest communication within and beyond the school and a drive forward in the school’s commitment to the local and wider community.

Frustration with previous IT providers was high because the software was just too technical for a large number of pupils and staff, who had varying levels of ability in ICT. It was essential that all pupils and staff could access the learning environment with confidence. Also, I did not feel that we were building good relationships with the IT providers. We were seeking a provider that would consider our unique needs and help us develop organically as a school.

The solution
We opted for Frog, claimed to be the most advanced learning platform available in the UK, as the solution which would answer all our needs. The solution, which complies with the government’s e-strategy for 2010 by providing schools with a fully integrated learning and management system, offers much more than a learning platform. It enables schools to complement their physical teaching and social environment with an interactive online digital environment.

We required a centrally hosted solution that was future proof. With externally hosted solutions, we worried about the reliance on the stability of our region’s broadband. If the internet was to go down, the teaching and learning of the school would be interrupted, which in turn could cause havoc in a school of this size. Our chosen solution gave us 100% confidence that this wouldn’t happen – I can guarantee that it will serve us throughout the whole school day. Once the solution was implemented, we organised 10 hours training for the staff and governors of the school. There was no point having a sophisticated digital environment if the users were not trained to use it. We now have 20 governors that are fully trained to use the learning platform.

An individual solution The Frog Framework provides building blocks to create school and local authority digital environments tailored to users’ individual requirements. Teachers and school administrative staff, using the kind of tools they are familiar with from office systems, can then further develop the environments. Schools use the Frog environment to create their public website, integrated with the VLE, departmental, year group and even tutor group sites, communications systems and admin systems, as well as the learning platform itself.

A transformation

In 18 months the school has developed into a ‘good to satisfactory’ educational organisation, with ‘exceptional leadership.’ A school that was once under a notice to improve has now achieved a highly successful and positive Ofsted report. It reads: ‘The exceptional leadership of the headteacher with good support from a dedicated group of governors provides an environment where students want to learn and where teachers are given every encouragement to improve.’ The solution has encouraged a considerable growth in social cohesion and inclusion. The remote access, a secure home-school gateway, has allowed pupils to access all resources beyond the confines of the school day. It has resulted in greater engagement of pupils and parents than previously. The children are even teaching their parents how to use the digital environment. Additionally, it has allowed St Paul’s to empower other schools regionally and internationally. Primary children are now able to interact with secondary children and trained, secondary learning mentors. Schools are also able to collaborate more easily and there is an equalising of the level of understanding of LP technology across the borough. This boosts the community aspect of our school. International school status has also seen a digital partnership with schools in Italy, France and Tanzania. Our latest venture is our link with Loyola High School in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, where our special representative has met with staff and investigated how our students can extend their horizons through a closer liaison with the students in Tanzania, utilising the digital environment. Ofsted has described this initiative as ‘best practice’.

Major benefits
The installation of a digital environment means that students can locate information, learning materials and email, both internally and from the comfort of their own home, in a safe and sound environment 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

A further benefit has been the £5,000-10,000 we save on paper costs per year, furthering our aim to be a ‘green’ school. This sophisticated learning environment has also reduced the time and effort wasted on – and confusion created – by learning platforms that proved too technical for the staff and children with lower ICT abilities. For my staff the benefits are equally impressive. They can have instant access to email on a daily basis and can also utilise the school calendar, teaching timetables and much more. The solution has driven forward lesson planning and has been highly positive in terms of staff communication and pedagogical delivery. The school-to-school links have allowed simple downloads, for example, of a lesson plan, directly on to the school’s own server. Its own digital environment tools can then be used to make instant changes to the plan. Through capabilities like this, teachers are now creating rich learning experiences, engaging our students in ways that have proved to raise achievement. The solution has even allowed headteacher newsletters to be broadcast through MP3, blogs and podcasts to the pupils. This reinforces St Paul’s cutting edge of technology education for the benefit of its student and the wider student body in the borough of Spelthorne.

The introduction of a digital environment has generated an enormous shift in the culture of our school. The school has pulled together, developing key pillars of school improvement – leadership, support and experience.