Cheap, reusable and accessible IT for schools

Right. What’s the definition of a really good bit of primary school IT? Is it ambitious and over-arching, integrating dozens of systems, forcing new behaviours all over the place and generally rending the fabric of reality? Or is it something really simple and quick to build that benefits the whole school community, costs nothing and can be re-used indefinitely? Here’s an example: Matt Johnson, switched-on deputy head at Fair Field Junior in Radlett (where I’m a parent governor) has put together a page at the school web site that uses Twitter, some Javascript and MMS photos to track a school trip.

Year four have gone to an activity centre in Staffordshire and Mr Lock, one of the supervising teachers, is twittering and sending photos from his phone. Result: more engaged parents, a fascinating and permanent real-time record of the trip as it unfolds and a system that can be reused every time the school goes away. The page is here and you can follow the trip on Twitter at

I wrote about one of Mr Johnson’s earlier Twitter projects—which is still running because the cost of maintaining it is essentially zero—here.

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An open letter (about the Schools White Paper) to grumpy Labour backbenchers

Hello Guys,

I’m pretty sure you won’t argue with me when I say that education is important to national competitiveness but I wonder if you’ll agree with me when I say that Britain’s only real hope in the next twenty, fifty or one hundred years is to be the best educated nation on the planet. A medium-sized, chilly, Northern European country with famously crappy infrastructure and a persistent productivity deficit stands precisely no chance at all in the profoundly altered global marketplace of the next decades without this kind of advantage.

Allow me to repeat myself: the only way to retain anything like our current status against the double-digit growth machines of Asia by the time my kids (7, 6 and 2) enter the workforce is to get started right now on profound reform of our education system with the goal of making it the best in the world. Of course, teachers are like nurses – they can do no wrong. Any attempt, from any ideological direction, to shake the system up, to provide new incentives and to dump wasteful and counterproductive practices will be greeted with horror and most likely fail.

But you, the backbone of Labour’s thin parliamentary majority, have a chance in the coming months to kick off the step change in education improvement that we need to help Britain compete with the new superpowers, to help invent a new model for state education, one that’s so powerful it might begin to bridge the gap with the snooty private schools. Oh… Hold on. Today an excellent private secondary school in Manchester took the plunge and rejoined the state system. I’m stunned. Suddenly we’re presented with the real and exciting prospect of a flow of private schools back into the state system.

Don’t pretend you don’t think that’s a big deal! You now have the power to make the state system so good that the private sector simply caves in and jumps the fence. The white paper (and the bill) presents the very real prospect that the private sector will be reduced to a tiny rump of schools for the super-rich and for the super-weird. Please don’t refuse this opportunity to remake British education and get us on track for the inevitable head-on battle with the Asian superpowers in the twenty-first century’s global marketplace.

Your friend, Steve

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You can call me guv

Detail from a letter informing parents of Fair Field School in Radlett that I've been elected as a Governor, October 2005
Democracy is alive and well, if uneven as to outcome. The Iraqis have – heroically – produced something approaching a viable constitutional basis for the next round of elections. Morgan Tsvangiri has succeeded in splitting and thus crippling Mugabe’s only opposition in Zimbabwe. In Britain, Labour’s proposed changes to electoral law look like a win for the nutcases and extremists and, in Radlett, the doughty parents of Fair Field Junior School have elected (by a majority of 16) a new Parent Governor: me. Bloody hell.

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Powerpoint in pedagogy

We’ve pressed the Powerbook and MS Powerpoint into half term service for our four year-old’s revision. In kiosk mode it’s easy to create a constrained sequence of words, letters, numbers that will only advance when he clicks in the right place and that provides an entertaining sound as a reward for getting the task right.

We learn: too much entertainment along the way is a major distraction (no pictures!); sometimes Olly wants to motor through the presentation thumbnails instead of following the sequence; knowledge acquired elsewhere (while browsing the web, for instance) is readily applied – “Why can’t I go backwards?”; sometimes computers are rubbish and spreading everything out on the table for easy scribbling and rearranging is best.

The whole thing makes me wonder if there’s an app out there for this kind of DIY educational computing. Something that would allow us to roll our own exercises easily and react quickly to the child’s demands? Something that would allow us to save the result to the web so others could play or so that we could call up exercises from anywhere?