From the magazine: Focus on the future

Seaview Primary in north Belfast was named the UK school with the most ‘innovative use of technology in learning’ at the TES awards this year. Over the course of a Skype call, Marie Cahalane caught up with principal Corinne Latham and it soon became very clear why. So, how have they taken ICT to the next level?

If one thing’s for certain, it’s that the future is digital. This is something that Seaview Primary School principal Corinne Latham and her team are very aware of and it means that technology is embedded at every level of teaching and learning. It starts with ‘Toast and Tech’ and winds its way through interactive lessons, after school sessions and parental participation – and is most clear in the enthusiastic attitudes of students.
In June this year, just before the school broke up for the summer holidays, Seaview Primary School was named the UK school with the ‘most innovative use of technology in learning’. Of course, this isn’t the first award they’ve won – that they were winners of the 2017 ICT Excellence Awards for Northern Ireland schools also deserves an honourable mention! Winning such a prestigious award is, undoubtedly, a point of pride for the school and one which they were pleasantly surprised by. “Not because our ICT provision isn’t excellent but because we were up against post-primary schools which are often more advanced and using innovative tools such as 3D printing and Java,” Corrine explains.
Written in the digital stars
What has enabled the school to reach these heights? A mixture of things. For one, Corinne entered her leadership position with a Masters in computer science and a background in the classroom, bringing with her an in-depth knowledge of education technology and an understanding of the pedagogy behind ICT in education. Pioneering technology in education is integral to her approach and so, at Seaview, the technology introduced is always well-vetted, innovative and exciting; it must hit the mark in terms of learning outcomes and function – if it’s not the right fit, forget it.
Another advantage at Seaview – and for Corinne in moving her digital-agenda forward – is that staff at the school were onboard from the outset – already engaging with technology to a high degree. Rather than starting from scratch they were taking it to the next level, progressing and developing what they were already doing. What they were aiming to do, and what was recognised by the TES award, was to really integrate technology and embed it in the school’s culture. “Technology shouldn’t be viewed as a ‘bolt on’; it’s part of teaching and learning, not just tagged on at the end,” Corinne explains.
Technology is ever-evolving and so too is the knowledge of staff. ‘Toast and Tech’ sessions help to keep teachers up to speed with the latest; these are 15-minute meets at which edtech is the agenda and collegiality and confidence in technology are the outcomes. It’s vital, Corinne notes, to train your greatest resources – your staff. Seaview staff are focused on uptraining – teachers and teaching assistants alike – and do so in their own time as well as in school – that’s the power of developing a culture of digital-curiosity! Some teachers at the school are Microsoft accredited, while others are Google or Apple teachers.
Learning for the digital native
This curiosity is passed on to the students of Seaview. “Enthusiastic teachers motivate students,” Corinne says, and it’s true, together they have created a prospering digital-culture within the school. The students are fully invested in the technology and, further, take responsibility for it. For example, the school has student digital leaders; not a new concept, but an effective one that Corinne has employed for the past eight years. This, she says, is a great way of developing student leadership skills as well as exercising their digital ones. Digital leaders play a key role in the classroom, supporting teachers and other children; all students are encouraged to assume a level of responsibility. Rather than relying on teachers to overcome challenges, students are encouraged to act themselves – developing their problem-solving skills.
The school also has a training academy for students which equips them with additional digital skills. Peer mentoring is encouraged and older students ‘buddy up’ with younger students to support them on their digital journey. “There’s a good feeling that comes with mentoring which comes from being able to pass on information and knowledge,” Corinne explains, adding that this, too, motivates students and helps them to grow as young people, building skills not just for today, but for their future. “This is a digital age and we are having to prepare children for a future we don’t even know about,” she says.
Students are recognised and rewarded for their digital prowess. The Seaview Spies is an initiative that motivates and rewards students for their ICT achievements; it tells students to try their best and teaches them respect and, as Corinne observes, we all benefit from praise and encouragement.
Educating digital natives requires parent participation and Seaview ensures that parents are kept up to speed. “Parents are, understandably, concerned about the tools that their children use in school and need to know how they work at home. It’s important that parents have confidence in the technology,” Corinne says. To allay these concerns, they educate – explaining the what, why and how of the digital devices they use. E-safety plays an important role; the school ensures the whole school community is tutored in this and they’ve invited the police and BT to provide tutorials on the subject.
A substantial investment
Of course, ICT costs money – something that schools don’t always have a lot of! At Seaview Corinne takes a creative approach. The school is always on the lookout for competitions – and enters all of them. They ask corporate companies for additional support – and have built some useful relationships on the back of this. They also work with Business in the Community, trial products where possible, trade for products and work with their parents’ association which, Corinne says, is very helpful. “We apply for different funding streams too – some you win, some you don’t, but everything counts,” Corinne adds. It sounds like a full-time job – and Corinne agrees it is – but it’s a shared one.
For Corinne and the team at Seaview, when investing in technology, they are very careful to do their research. “There are so many tools available you really have to take the time to ensure you are careful about what you spend money on; it must work and be of benefit to teaching and learning,” she says. “It must have impact.” For example, the school recently installed active panels as they needed a refresh; while this was expensive, it was a necessary cost, Corinne stresses.
Where there is a challenge there is a way
There were, of course, challenges in realising the award-winning tech-transformation at Seaview Primary. One was the physical school building! Like many schools across the UK, theirs is an old building – built in 1934 – so thick walls proved an issue. “We had to be skilful with our wireless points to ensure that access was comprehensive. We also had to ensure it was secure!” Corinne says. “We had to look at what we had and how we could develop it – with money in short supply it’s really a matter of figuring what’s good and what works. There’s no point wasting time and money on technology that doesn’t fit.”
For schools planning on developing their technology offering Corinne recalls the adage, ‘Rome wasn’t built in a day.’ “You can’t expect everyone to progress as quickly – it’s a process and a journey,” she reminds us.
This article featured in the January issue of Education Executive. Subscribe now to keep up-to-date with the latest in school business management and leadership.
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