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Without infrastructure, vision is nothing

Being as good as the rest simply isn't enough, says Andrew Howard

Posted by Rebecca Paddick | October 19, 2016 | Technology

As Anthony Salcito very clearly states, there is a definite need for a vision, an ethos top pull everything together, any time change is planned. When creating a brand new school, this is even more vital; as with any 'market', a new school has to make space within the local ecosystem to survive - it has to be, to offer something that the other schools around can't or don’t offer. In England, the Free School programme tries to use local capacity as the main driver for a new school; pressure on places providing enough of a drive for a new school to survive. And to a certain point, this is true, but only as long as the new school proves itself to be as good as the rest. 

But starting a new Independent, fee paying, School, in a market that is already under strain from economic and societal pressures, being as good as the rest (or even being better than the rest) simply isn't enough. That is why it took 12 months to plan the opening of Myddelton College; we had to be different, to offer something that doesn't exist already. It is one thing to offer an educational experience that has all the structures to provide high quality education (excellent teachers, with strong track records, small class sizes, students and parents buying into the establishment, etc), but all that can do is show us to be better than the alternative. But one of the problems about being just that is that the other schools can look to improve, to snap at the heels of the new kid on the block.

To compete, rather than to collaborate. As an aside, of course, this is what has happened in England, where league tables result in schools looking to cherry pick the best students, through almost any means possible, to be top of the local leagues - the spiral of increasing success for some schools balanced by the spiral of failure for others. And that's with an even playing field - when new selective grammar schools come into this market, bets are off for some schools.

There is no doubt that striving to be better than the alternative is a positive thing, however; it does provide the motivation to reflect on internal systems, to constantly be looking at what you do, to ensure it provides the 'best' outcomes for the students. But in isolation, it leads also to divisiveness and competition.

It's important to distinguish what makes you different. What defines you as a school. What your vision is. This is what will carry you through and pull you together as an organisation

So it's also important to distinguish what makes you different. What defines you as a school. What your vision is. This is what will carry you through and pull you together as an organisation. It also helps to protect the organisation from the buffeting winds of current changing paradigms; the vision acts as a lodestone, providing the check and balance to ensure any change is a trimming of the sails, helping to keep the ship going in the right direction.

And for Myddelton, this is encapsulated in our strap line. Beyond the motto: More than just an education, the strapline gives an insight into our ethos: “Being a great school requires more than just providing the best possible education; it requires a different view of what education is.”

For us, this is, amongst other things, putting the emphasis on providing a very 21st century focussed education. Not necessarily a 21st century curriculum - we still teach gothic horror, for example, in English Literature - but deeper than that. 21st century skills are embedded in the very framework that the curriculum is built on.

And this requires a very strong infrastructure to support this, which in buildings that are 157 years old has proved to be difficult. Having being involved in a new build, where the infrastructure all has to be built in from the start, I can easily state that having to adapt an existing building is considerably harder!

As a starter, being in rural North Wales, the access to high speed broadband was not a simple case; the existing site had a very slow, and unreliable microwave broadband, via a dish on the roof. This was just about ok for the first year, whilst we were just a skeleton team setting up, but as soon as we had over 100 devices all trying to synchronise with the Office 365 system in the cloud, we had enormous problems. This was anticipated, and we had ordered the installation of a dedicated 100Mb fibre cable direct from the exchange to the server, but despite this process being started over four months ago, completion is still to be anticipated.

Without the vision being turned into a reality, we are nothing, but without the infrastructure, the vision can never happen

Then there was the existing servers, inherited from the old establishment before us. Servers that were approximately four years old. Servers that no-one had the password to access as an admin. Servers that were not up to the specification for the Widows Server Software we needed. So new servers had to be configured and installed. Whilst leaving the old ones in place, as they ran systems needed by the landlord…

And then finally, whilst there was reasonable wifi coverage throughout the main core of the college, some areas we were going to use didn't have wifi and others had insufficient. It would have been great to rip out and put in a whole new set of hot spots, but cost prevented this, so we needed to go for a mixed economy that still worked.

We would not have achieved any of this without the amazing support of our IT partners, 1010 Systems, from Chester; they understood exactly what our ambition was, quickly got to grips with our constraints and have worked with us throughout the process to ensure that our student experience is as good as it can be whilst we wait for the systems to all be finally integrated. They even had to take off site all our Microsoft Surface devices, so Windows 10 could be installed and configured, which they did in a couple days, returning all 90 of our devices fully configured and updated, with MS Office also installed, ready to issue to students. 

There is still much to do, with additional wifi, better server support, Network Storage and back up to be considered, but once we have the fibre cable connected (just reliant on the beneficence of BT Openreach on that one), we will have the infrastructure we require to deliver the vision. And as I said at the start, without the vision being turned into a reality, we are nothing, but without the infrastructure, the vision can never happen.

About the author 

Andrew Howard. B.Sc.(Hons), PGCE, M.A., NPQH

Andy Howard is currently CEO & Executive Headmaster of Myddelton College, in Denbigh, North Wales. With over 26 years’ experience in education, working in all types of school around the country, Andy is now opening a brand new Co-educational Independent Boarding School, based on a completely re-written pedagogical framework, putting technology and 21st century ‘soft’ skills at the heart of the school. Andy is also a member of the Microsoft Education Advisory Board, providing advice to Microsoft on the development of their products for the educational market.    

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