Thursday, 8 September 2011

Novatia’s associate programme

Novatia are expanding, both in terms of the business we’re winning in our traditional sectors (Educational, Technical and Procurement ICT consultancy for new build schools) and through expansion into new areas.

Novatia are involved in the launch of an exciting new Management Information System (MIS) into the UK. We will soon be helping schools to move MIS, with all the training and data migration that is implied.

Clearly, lots more work requires lots more people to deliver it – but people of a certain calibre, who will be able to carry out engagements and produce documentation to the high standards of quality which our clients demand, expect and indeed selected us above our competitors for. We are therefore looking to identify a small number of highly experienced and professional associates to provide additional capacity in this period of growth.

There are four main types of work we want our associates to carry out;

  • Educational consultancy: supporting schools in raising standards, developing educational briefs, curricula, etc.
  • Technical consultancy: integrating ICT into design and build projects, consulting to specify a solution, etc.
  • Project Management: overseeing the process which sees new schools go from concept to reality – with all the myriad steps in between
  • Technical MIS: SQL development, data migration, staff training

To be a Novatia associate, you will need to have:

  • a background supporting education sector organisations in the UK undergoing change
  • a personable and professional demeanour
  • credibility with education professionals of all levels
  • the willingness to travel nationally
  • the proven ability to create very high-quality outputs

To get involved in the Novatia Associate programme, or for an informal conversation to find out more, please contact our Project Support Office on 01392 314627

Thursday, 9 June 2011

Free schools, ICT and the risk of not learning from past mistakes (Part 2)

My last blog looked at the some of the problems with how ICT is now being funded in Free (and other new) schools, concluding that on top of the reduced budget for technology, PfS’ well-intentioned tinkering with the way the money should be spent is causing some serious issues of quality and risk.

Since then, Michael Gove has announced that PfS is to be closed and its functions (and no doubt the majority of its staff) brought in-house. This political side-step will allow the Government to purge off the final lingering whiff of BSF whilst strengthening its capacity to manage capital schools programmes centrally, as recommended in the James review.

This makes a great deal of sense and is one of the review’s findings which I support; a central ‘client’ with expert advice and strong experience will achieve more with the limited funds available than would be possible if the money was passed out regionally or locally.

The most important reason for this is experience; the Design process, from the build contractor’s perspective, is partially a cost suppression exercise which they only accomplish due to the naivety of clients who haven’t done this before. Most of these clients (currently LAs and Academy sponsors) come out of the process with a firm understanding of what they should have done, but limited opportunities to put these lessons into practice, especially with the same set of staff.

If the DfE’s experts are running repeated procurements of new build schools, one would hope that the tax payer would start to gain the upper hand over the build companies’ shareholders, achieving better school buildings for the same money. Of course, this theoretical benefit evaporates if the central client isn’t quite as expert as it purports to be, but that’s a whole separate blog.

Moving onto ICT and the Design process, however, I have an interest to declare here – I work for a company that specialises in integrating ICT into school builds and refurbs – but that doesn’t change the essential right-ness of what follows…

The current method of designing ICT into Free school buildings ‘works’ like this;
  • 1. The Free school comes up with its concept of how technology should be used to enhance its aims (I won’t call this a vision, as the school usually hasn’t had the time or support to develop it in breadth or depth).
  • 4. The Free school procures its ICT contractor with the support of PfS. As the sharper-eyed reader will no doubt have spotted, due to the absence of Step 2 & 3, this is little more than a speculative shopping list.
  • 5. The school is built/ refurbished and the ICT installed. Due to the absence of Step 3, this will inevitably be a fraught process with impaired results.
What are the missing steps? Well, they’re actually quite simple and established routines for ensuring that school building design takes account of ICT, the problem is they require the DfE to pay someone to do them (Free schools themselves don’t have the expertise, PfS don’t have the capacity);
  • 2. The school explores in detail how their ICT vision will be actualised in the building. How will technology support learning in Maths? What equipment is needed to deliver the Science curriculum? Moreover, the school considers what it is that will be important to them in an ICT contractor, as well as the multiple commercial issues which need to be tied down (how will you ensure your choice of Project Manager isn’t shipped off to another project? How will the contractor’s delivery be monitored, tested and managed contractually? Et cetera). The output of this work is an appropriately detailed Invitation to Tender document which leaves the market in no doubt what is being asked for and how it will need to be delivered, and with no room to wriggle out of its responsibilities. Without this, bidders’ responses will be vague and varied, and judging Value for Money is impossible.
  • 3. The school goes through its building on a room by room basis working out how many power and data points are needed and in which locations. This should culminate in a Room Equipment Schedule detailing types of equipment, related power and data requirements, and the implied heat outputs. This is a devilishly complex task, as there are so many dependencies and variables, and missteps & omissions will result in either having to live with the mistakes or having to pay the builder’s costs to fix them. The process needs to happen early enough that the information can inform the builder’s plans, so that any required ICT isn’t bolted on as a compromise when it’s too late to design around it (“Oh, that room is full of computers and needs air conditioning? You really should have said something earlier…and the door to the Server Room is too small to fit the rack through? Not our problem”). It’s also a precursor to procurement as it’s essential to know what you need to buy if you’re interested in working out the relative cost merit of suppliers’ offers. Not doing this is akin to walking blindfolded into Waitrose, telling the cashier you’ve got £50 and then being surprised/ annoyed at how little/ how unsuitable the contents of your shopping bag are when you get home.
I have no doubt that the DfE will realise all this for itself after the experience of the first flawed Free school buildings has sunk in, but that seems a high price to pay, especially as these lessons are already well understood and the UK currently has the intellectual capital and industry capacity to do something about it.

Dom Norrish. Follow me on twitter.

Monday, 23 May 2011

Free schools, ICT and the risk of not learning from past mistakes (Part 1)

Having been exposed to the evolving Free Schools process over the past few months, I’d like to raise a few area for discussion, specifically about how ICT will be planned and integrated, as I’m not convinced this has been properly thought through. In this first part, I’ll concentrate on the funding side of things.

The funding model is pretty different from that seen in previous capital projects (Academies, et cetera) and reflects the nation’s more straightened circumstances as well as an attempt to reorganise responsibilities;
  • ICT equipment funding spent with the ICT contractor (to cover all end-user kit, essentially) is capped at £800 per pupil, down from £1450. This is an approximate 45% reduction. See here for this potential impact of this.
  • The £225 per pupil for ICT infrastructure spent with the builder remains intact but is now expected to stretch further, covering active networking (wired and wireless) and some installation elements.
The positives
The £225 being stretched further is a good thing, as it was always too much money in my opinion for what the builder was being asked to do (the cabling, basically). Value for money was rarely achieved and even more rarely demonstrated – this funding tended to get swallowed up into the project more generally.

Some would also say that £1450 per pupil for equipment was too much – some schools struggled to spend it meaningfully, and struggled even more to maintain this level of investment in future years. I can’t argue with the logic of the second half of that; it is indeed easier and more realistic for schools to pay for the upkeep of a smaller ICT estate than a larger one.

Finally, I think it’s accurate to say that the ambition behind changes in responsibility for delivery (expanded on below) is that any new schools built on this model will be ready to go ‘out of the box’; all the ICT infrastructure (previously split between builder and ICT contractor) will be in place and ready for schools to hang whatever they like off it.

The negatives
Firstly, £800 per pupil for ICT equipment is certainly not enough, especially for small schools for whom infrastructural costs don’t scale downwards as they’re relatively fixed. This number, I assume, is predicated on schools outsourcing many of their services (and hence their servers) to external providers in what is popularly imagined as ‘the cloud’. That’s fine, as far as it goes, but carries several assumptions;
  • that the school can afford to dedicate a large chunk (£150-200 per pupil probably) of its revenue to paying for outsourced services;
  • that every school (remember, the £800 is a capped maximum, regardless of circumstances) has sufficient bandwidth to receive reliable remote services;
  • that every school wants to follow this outsourcing model, and many will be unhappy with the levels of control, flexibility and security it offers.
If I reference those assumptions against the three new build projects I’m currently working on, each project falls afoul of at least one of them.

This approach removes choice from schools and burdens them with an ICT mortgage; it smacks of the worst elements of BSF to me.

Secondly, to enforce the stretching of the builder’s budget (the £225), PfS have changed the standard form ICT Responsibilities Matrix to include several items which I believe are best left in the scope of the ICT contractor;
  • Edge and core switching
  • Wireless (to be fair, this isn’t a change per se as it was always a builder responsibility, they just never did it)
  • The install of Data Projectors, Interactive Whiteboards and Signage screens
  • and, bizarrely, Weather Stations (I guess because they go on the roof?)
This raises all sorts of concerns around quality, installation, configuration and testing. The questions that spring to my mind are;
  • How will the specification of these systems be agreed? It will be up to the ICT work stream to specify them, but my experience suggests that an appropriately high, future-proof spec will be aggressively resisted by the build contractor. The resulting compromise? Weakened infrastructure.
  • How will the standards of installation be agreed? The thorniest issue in any implementation is usually the Audio Visual element, specifically meeting the school’s expectations. Again, without wishing to denigrate the building industry unnecessarily, I have doubts over the success of this.
  • Who will configure these systems? Physical installation is one thing, technical configuration is quite another. Even if the builder uses third party experts (they don’t typically retain their own), surely it’s the ICT contractor who needs to configure the network to suit the ICT solution? This is probably the most worrying and highest risk part.
  • How will the builder-provided elements be tested? Currently, the ICT providers we appoint are held to account via detailed User Acceptance Tests linked to payment milestones and delay penalties. This is enshrined in the contract and has taken a number of years to mature. I can’t imagine this approach being accepted by the big building companies. What is far more likely is that ‘sign off’ will be achieved through perfunctory testing which gives schools no assurance of a properly functioning system.
The elephant in the room
In an attempt to achieve clearer demarcation, the process seems to have created a raft of issues and risks, throwing the baby out with the bathwater. The potential, unforgivable tragedy is the massive waste of public funds implied, and not just through poor outcomes; the builder – unable to do the work themselves – will in almost all cases simply subcontract these tasks to… the ICT contractor.

The outcomes will be worse due to reduced specification and issues over quality and testing, and the same people will do the work in the end. The main difference is that it will cost the country more. Is this really the way to build on the lessons of past programmes?

In the next part, I plan to consider the process by which ICT is designed and integrated into Free school buildings

Dom Norrish. Follow me on twitter.

Tuesday, 5 April 2011

Digital Clipboards in the Classroom

I’m working with a school that’s just bought a small number of these digital clipboards for use in English lessons, primarily. I doubt this is a particularly new technology, but I hadn’t seen it employed by a school before so thought it worth exploring.

digimemo image:

The device allows students to write on normal paper during lessons (e.g. recording notes for revision, drafting a piece of writing) with a special pen (though it uses standard ink cartridges). Their notes are then uploaded to a computer as an image when the clipboard is next connected by USB cable.

Even better, the Optical Character Recognition (OCR) software supplied with the device converts handwriting into text which can then be manipulated using a word processor or other similar tool (such as MS OneNote).

I’m sure the school will come up with many different applications for this technology. A few which occur to me are;

  • Sharing the outcomes of group work with all participants, so that everyone has a record of discussions/ plans, etc. This would work just as well if it was the teacher recording a class discussion or collaborative development of an idea.
  • Allowing learners to generate mind maps/ flow charts/ diagrams (something which a computer is often a barrier to) in a natural way, and still be able to use the results digitally.
  • Encouraging disengaged learners or those with weak computer/ writing skills to take notes, which can later be expanded on away from the pressure of a live lesson. The fact that you get a high quality, clean copy of your notes in Word will add value here, I’m sure, especially for those who are convinced their work is always poor.
  • Digital note taking in situations where you wouldn’t necessarily want to take a laptop/ tablet; observing a sport, on the bus, in the Resistant Materials room.

I’ll report back on how successful they are in a few months.

Dominic Norrish. Follow me on Twitter

Monday, 7 March 2011

Are meaningful Digital Exams actually any closer?

Back in the Winter of 2009 (wow, that sounds a long time ago!) I wrote this in response to some early stirrings around the imperative for examinations to move online. If you have the time to read it, you’ll find it’s a characteristic polemic about the need for change/ the shackles of the systems of the past, et cetera. I wasn’t expecting anything to actually, you know, happen – at least not in the lifetime of this Government.

Late this February, many media outlets (including The Independent and the TES) reported on the announcement by Ofqual that pen and paper exams must come to an end or risk becoming an irrelevance to candidates.


Isabel Nisbet (Chief Executive of Ofqual) remarked of learners "They use IT as their natural medium for identifying and exploring new issues and deepening their knowledge”, displaying a grasp of the drivers and needs of modern youth which quite frankly throws the rest of Whitehall into sharp relief. Just think - exams which measure people’s abilities not knowledge, their capacity to work together, to adapt, to understand and to remodel information. Sounds fantastic doesn’t it?

There are, however, some flaws in Isabel’s logic which (before we go into the street to declare the arrival of a new age of enlightenment in UK education) cause me no little concern.

Firstly, any examination system is by definition the output measure of its curriculum. For Ms. Nisbet’s vision of digital exams to become a reality, it must be preceded by similarly transformational thinking in terms of what is taught, studied and therefore valued by society. In short, the curriculum would need to shift significantly towards the development of the skills of assimilation and synthesis of information that she describes. This might be a problem; to judge from announcements by other offices of the DfE, the national curriculum’s direction of travel is quite the opposite, and is accelerating exponentially. No, I fear that what Ofqual are actually talking about is the digital administration and marking of exams, albeit clothed in the undeliverable rhetoric of ‘21st-century learning’. They are the tail, after all, and not the dog.

exam papersImage:

So if it’s not for the good of learners, what’s the point of digital exams? The bodies which stand to gain the most from a shift towards digital exams (not students – they’ll see no benefit until the content on the exams changes) are the examination boards themselves. The financial overheads and logistical complexities of pen and paper exams are vast and restrictive, particularly for an industry which earns a substantial chunk of its income from overseas markets. The key to retaining the UK’s edge as the world’s leading supplier of qualifications lies in getting the job done more quickly and with fewer people. Of course, I won’t even begin to speculate on how much easier it will be to outsource exam marking to the 2nd world once they are all digitally sat and transmitted.

This may in reality be nothing more than the cynical manipulation of  the educational change agenda to further the interests of UK plc, without evolving to any degree how we actually measure and value learning.

Sadly we seem to lack the vision of the Danes to reinvent what exams are for, but those who make decisions about the nation’s curriculum and exams should consider this; not every country is in awe of PISA league tables and the regurgitation of facts and learned techniques that they laud. Those economies which will produce the kind of entrepreneurs David Cameron was calling for last week will do so through an education system which allows students to discover, collaborate and use their technology skills just as in ‘real life’. Successful C21st countries will have curricula and exams which reflect this, and those which fail to adapt will wither.

I'd be delighted to be wrong, let’s hope I am.

Dominic Norrish
Follow me on twitter @domnorrish

Tuesday, 18 January 2011

That was the week that was

This week the UK’s educational technology community is collectively breathing out/ succumbing to flu following the annual lunacy of three frantic days at Olympia buying, selling and – mostly – networking. Annual lunacy which this year was prolonged (at least for the well-healed – tickets were several hundred pounds, although the Sunday was free) by the transplanted Learning Without Frontiers conference which took place Sunday to Tuesday.

LWF, clearly pitching to supplant BETT as the event for edtech cognoscenti and international delegations, used its marketing to ridicule visitors to the grande dame of ICT as sheep following the herd… and then proceeded to hand each of its own attendees an iPad without a trace of irony. By all accounts, those who went along had a lovely, multi-touchy time.


However, LWF’s organiser Graham Brown-Martin (@GrahamBM) has got a point. In the post-Becta policy vacuum, the ongoing relevance of BETT 2011 has been repeatedly questioned the twitterati. An inevitable focus of ‘product’ not ‘practice and policy’ was predicted but did not, in my opinion, come to pass. I think this was for three main reasons;
  • The decision of an increasing number of companies to use *gasp* real teachers and children to demonstrate and explain how the product in question helps with learning
  • The fact that the policy and practice aspects of previous BETTs had always read well in the pre-show seminar list but often failed to deliver, usually being a rehash of ideas or a skating over of the surface of an issue
  • The ever-growing prevalence of teacher-led training events such as TeachMeet Takeover
Playful rumours of BETT’s death (from @johnmclear in this instance) therefore proved to have been partially exaggerated, to misquote Mark Twain’s phrase – the place was as full as ever of pushy vendors, excited teachers, and garrulous foreigners - but it's certainly evolving. See @theheadsoffice's blog for details.


Speculation that education minister Nick Gibb would be speaking on Wednesday proved groundless (which would have been a bit like Darth Vader eulogising at an Ewok funeral anyway), but we did hear from the acceptable, cuddly, eSafety face of the DfE in the form of Tim Loughton (“the time has come to place technology at the absolute centre of our aspirations for a world class education sector” – note the word aspiration. That’s politician code for ‘un-enforcably vague promise’).


As usual, there was a lot of familiar stuff cluttering up multiple stands. The industry clearly seems to think schools really need huge interactive plasma screens (starting at £3000) and 3D projectors. Time will tell, but I’m with Dr. Kermode on this one. I’ll also be interested to see if the virtual mountain bikes being promoted on European Electronique’s stand find a market.

So what was worth seeing? Having long been a proponent of games in education, it was great to see so many games companies emerging into the education space. Playing History seems to be a great way into some hard to visualise topics for KS2 and KS3 students, with players navigating their way through a point and click quest-style storyline. Alternatively, Games Ed’s Sustainaville takes the approach of using a single class version of a SimCity-like game to inspire groups to tackle various urban problems, co-ordinating their approach with other groups and debating decisions before they are modelled by the game. A great approach to developing thinking and team-working skills. Not new but still brilliant, I remain a fan of Stock Market Challenge which, for all its brazenly capitalist ideology, is a superbly motivating way to get students to understand the interconnectedness of economics through competing with their maths and business skills to beat their friends. A use of technology in schools the current administration would unreservedly condone (knew I’d find one if I looked hard enough)!


Something else I was pretty impressed with was the classroom observation kit provided by Iris Connect. I’ve been recommending fixed camera's into CPD suites for a few years now, but Iris Connect’s back-end software has been superbly thought through with a view to making video footage a really effective development tool for teachers and observers. It’s portable between classrooms too - highly recommended. I don’t know if the company has been floated, but if so, buy some shares now - with the Government’s plan to move teacher training out of Universities and into schools, these things are going to start selling like hot-cakes.

Dominic Norrish. Follow me on twitter