Independent Co-Educational Day & Boarding School for Ages 2 - 18. The Best of British Boarding by the Sea.

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Virtual vs Real World – Education Technology in a Traditional School Setting

Technology is an integral part of life today, and schools alongside parents, play a crucial role in how children learn to use it effectively and safely.

Saint Felix, Southwold, is a co-educational boarding school for pupils aged two to eighteen. Celebrating its 120th anniversary this year, the school has embraced numerous changes over that time, whilst maintaining its fundamental ethos to support pupils in their development as fully-rounded individuals with a strong sense of social responsibility. James Harrison, headmaster in post since September 2016, outlines the benefits and challenges from his perspective:

  1. Starting them young

We start with coding classes for Reception pupils and go right through to the creation of digital portfolios for A level Photography students. ICT is a standard subject on the curriculum for all pupils from Pre-Prep through to Year 9, after which it becomes a GCSE option. Alongside the tech that children use out of school hours, we ensure that they are familiar with a wide variety of software and hardware across the full curriculum and in enrichment activities, with a view to both facilitate learning and enjoyment, and improve performance. From the outset, pupils use technology within certain parameters so that they understand boundaries from the outset.

  1. Using technology to prepare for real-life

Within music classes as an example, we have a suite of Mac computers running industry-standard editing and composing software alongside a fully-equipped recording studio to offer students first hand experience of what to expect should they choose to pursue a career in the music industry.  All Year 9 students write, record and mix their own songs using the program LogicPro, and have the opportunity to go on to study Music Technology at A Level. Students are given further opportunity to explore this topic at an extra-curricular music tech club, run by a multiple gold and silver disc winning producer and, not surprisingly, over-subscribed.

  1. Tech for teachers

Developments in both hardware and software have also brought significant changes to teaching staff. NFER assessments are now conducted on computer, which helps in the creation of comprehensive and accurate reports as well as a great time-saver, in an age when teachers are required to gather ever-increasing amounts of data. We can now produce seven-page reports on each child within minutes, a task which previously took far longer. That time saving gives us additional scope to work with each child in developing their individual talents, and also makes it far easier to track progress year-on-year.

  1. Keeping track

The Senior department utilises a program created by Durham University’s Centre for Evaluation and Monitoring. Pupils in years 2, 6, 7, 10 and 12 sit a baseline computer adaptive test. The university then analyses the results and provides the school with a variety of information, most specifically a grade or mark for the test and, perhaps more importantly, a set of predicted grades for those pupils. Again, as a tool for monitoring pupil progress, both individually and by cohort, this is a huge help to teachers as it gives a target against which progress can be measured and facilitates early intervention where a pupil may be falling behind. The program also allows for benchmarking between schools participating in the program, giving Saint Felix access to information that would not previously have been readily available.

  1. In loco parentis

Whilst students are encouraged to use the internet as a resource for independent learning, as a boarding school we have a considerable number of students for whom we act in loco parentis 24/7 during term time. Issues thrown up by the increased use of social media are certainly intensified when pupils both live and work together. To mitigate this, we have a series of rules of conduct that all boarders are required to subscribe to at the start of each year. These include a “no-tech” rule in the dining room, or after lights-out, both of which are enforced with zero tolerance:  devices are confiscated from rule-breakers. Boarders’ internet access is controlled by year group and is only accessible until lights out (which varies by year group). During school hours, pupils should not have phones or tablets with them in school but sixth formers are permitted to use them in the Cyber Café.

Of course one of the biggest changes that developing technology has made to boarders is the ease of access to family and friends using apps like Skype. Once upon a time, parental contact was restricted to infrequent calls and even less frequent face-to-face meetings, whereas many of our boarders today contact their parents on a nightly basis for a catch-up. We find this really helps our students to settle, knowing that their parents are so close at hand if not actually physically present.

From an administrative perspective, we have managed to streamline a number of processes by collating information electronically, be it pastoral logs, incident reports, trip lists, or holiday and homestay timings.

  1. Managing the risks

Of course, we want both pupils and teachers to take full advantage of technological developments, but within a well-defined framework for safe use. We must equip our students with the skills and knowledge that will allow them to continue to thrive after they leave Saint Felix. Learning how to use relevant technological resources and processes effectively and safely is key to that. With teenagers now spending on average of 30 hours per week online, we recognise the need for all pupils to be able to talk openly about issues facing young people in both the real and virtual worlds.  Saint Felix is a small school with a family ethos: we all look to support one another and we need to be aware of the dangers of social media addiction that so many young people are facing throughout the country. This type of education is just as important as Maths or English. At the beginning of this academic year, we devised and delivered a module on online safeguarding to all sixth formers as part of a broader Peer Support programme, to equip them to help both peers and younger pupils who may be struggling.

  1. Sharing is caring

The school also recognises the benefits of social media of course, not least as an extremely useful form of communication, particularly with parents. Our tweets and Facebook posts give parents a level of insight into school life that has never previously been possible. Our school social media accounts are managed by a small number of senior staff who follow pre-agreed guidelines in order to ensure consistency, and offer a balance of content highlighting both the academic and extra-curricular aspects of school life. As headmaster, I tweet every Monday following the Senior Department Assembly to share that morning’s topic and provide links for further information to pupils and parents alike. Our social media is also one of the key forms of communication between the school and its local community in Southwold on the Suffolk coast, helping us to maintain the close relationship between the two.

Developing technology in the education sector has an ongoing effect on the teaching landscape; we have a duty to our pupils to equip them with the necessary skills and knowledge to use it, and perhaps even help to create it in the future. More importantly though, we must teach them that it is only one part of their education, that any virtual world must co-exist with the real world.