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Andrew Howard: The Problem of Being a 21st Century Principal

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by Andrew Howard
Expert Educator Columnist, UK

andrew-1When I started teaching, a quarter of a century ago, the school I started teaching in had the most modern technology out – one black & white photocopier (only used by the Senior Management) & a couple old fashioned ‘Banda’ machines (http://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Spirit_duplicator) were the height of technology… the young people had all the problems of being young, without the overlay of technology – the biggest ‘complaint’ was that the house phone cord would not stretch enough for young people to have a private conversation with friends!

To get a feel for my journey into teaching, please see my interview on Anthony Salcito’s blog, Daily Edventures; I am as passionate today (if not more so) about changing young people’s lives as I was 25 years ago!

I started teaching in an inner city school in London, with a very diverse culture, and all the issues that come with that. One thing I remember very clearly was the school’s ICT suite – a room of 15 large, green-monochrome monitor beasts, running a command-line operating system and students saving work on 5.25″ floppy drives. They were in a separate building; brand new, built as the school’s ‘vocational’ centre – on the ground floor, there was a car workshop (for Motor Vehicle Maintenance), and upstairs were two rooms – one where Childcare was taught & the other was the computer room. There were no computers elsewhere, apart from in the admin centre, where the school secretaries used them – Computers were clearly seen there as a ‘vocational’ tool, for office work…

Having come from a University where I had studied Physics, accessing a full network of computers, using them for research, write-ups of lab results, programming, modelling, etc., it was very clear to me that there was more to computers than them being solely glorified typewriters!

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But things move rapidly in the world. Only 4 years after that, I found myself in a school with projectors on the wall, interactive whiteboards were starting to make an appearance and the education world was embracing new technology. However, I saw (& still predominantly see) teachers & schools as a whole working with technology to enhance the learning, rather than transform it & that has been and still is my greatest frustration.

There have been many models over the years demonstrating the various levels of integration for ICT in education, but the one I like the best is the SAMR model: Substitution, Augmentation, Modification & Redefinition.

So I find myself now Principal of a very special school, Sandymoor (I would say that, wouldn’t I!); a brand new school opened in 2012 under the UK’s Free School programme (based on the Charter School in the US & the ‘Friskola’ system in Scandinavia). We were founded by a group of local residents, all parents, who had a vision to want a local school with a ‘Fresh Approach to Education’. They had (& have) a very strong vision of what they wanted their school to be like and appointed me to turn this vision into a reality. One clear priority was a strong desire to transform & redefine the way young people interact & learn in school and technology is at the very heart of that.

From a technology point of view, we are, I feel, redefining the agenda. We have no whiteboards on the walls – instead we project on to a special ultra-matt ‘off-white’ paint surface on the wall. There are two projectors on the ceiling, so the images from the teacher are viewable from anywhere in the classroom. These both push away from the ‘front’ of class mentality, with a teacher in a hierarchical position at the ‘front’ – the old ‘Sage on the Stage’ mentality.

My teaching staff are all expected to put schemes of work online in advance for parents and students to access & material covered in lessons has to be online for students as well.

All staff have laptops (we are slowly moving to touch screen devices) & handheld technology. In classrooms, there is no teachers’ desk acting as a barrier and if you were to visit a class in action, you would most likely see the teacher (& classroom support staff) mingling in and amongst the students. There is a buzz & a busy atmosphere in my classrooms – not the ‘seen but not heard’ Victorian view on traditional classrooms!

Students don’t have paper ‘planners’ or homework diaries – instead all our communication is through Office 365. Students are assigned homework and project tasks via calendar invites. Documents are shared through OneDrive & we are starting to explore whole-scale adoption of OneNote & the Classbook Creator.

Being nominated as a Global Showcase School has been a real recognition of the work we are trying to do and we are very excited about the developments ahead of us! I am going to be documenting our journey through this blog, sharing our successes and our failures, discussing our plans and framing our goals and ambitions.

Technology allows us to think what used to be unthinkable and explore what could only be dreamt of just a handful of years ago. Over my career, I have seen the web come into every day existence and then move from a passive research & data tool to a collaboration space, where learning from other people is the norm, but in schools, I see very little actual transformational change. At Sandymoor, we are trying hard to model what a 21st Century school will actually look like & (trying to do it on a budget).

At the moment, one thing that is taking a lot of my thoughts and worries is the fact that, against what would be common expectation, the student population is proving to be resistant to embracing this change. I feel that, at the heart of this, it is due to the fact that we are asking them to think more and proactively engage in their learning more, but I will explore those ideas (& our attempts to overcome this) on my next blog …


Sandymoor School, Runcorn.Andy graduated from Imperial College, London, with a degree in Physics & Medical Physics before undertaking his PGCE at Kings’ College, London. His course tutor was Professor Paul Black and his influence is clear in Andy’s approach to pedagogy. A firm believer in challenging popular hegemony, Andy has found has always strived to evolve the education wherever he has found himself. Through 25 years in education, Andy has worked in almost every type of school in the UK system, from inner-city comprehensives to world-famous independent schools; co-educational and both single-sexes and all age ranges. Andy is now the Founding Principal of Sandymoor School, a free school that opened in September 2012 in the North West of England. At their first Ofsted Inspection (January 2014), the school was graded ‘Good’ overall, with ‘Outstanding’ Leadership.

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