Ed Brodhurst is Assistant Head Teacher for Teaching and Learning at Carterton Community College, a local secondary school in West Oxfordshire that’s educating 650 keen scholars (plus 60 in its new Sixth Form Centre), and which sets a high bar for its students:
We operate by an acronym we call ARK, which is Ambition, Responsibility, and Kindness, and those are the three values we really want to instil in our students - that everybody should be ambitious, you should strive for the highest outcomes, and we should all be responsible in our community.
And three years back, Carterton found a very handy way of helping the youngsters in its care achieve both their ARK and academic ambitions: make it easier and more transparent for everyone to see track of that favourite thing of every schoolchild - homework!:
We’ve found software to fill a gap in our strategic process we haven't really addressed before - an overview of what homework we were setting across the school.
We used to traditionally use a system of paper planners, where students wrote in homework they needed to do that day or that week. But we had no real way of monitoring what was going on unless we took in everybody's planners and literally physically looked through them.
To make homework tracking better for everyone in the school community, Brodhurst selected help from something called Satchel - a product created in 2011 by a former deputy head, and which is claimed to be used by a growing number of UK schools to solve just this problem.
And it seems it really has:
Instead of writing down a few simple stuffy phrases in planners for what the learner’s homework is, we can send her files, we can suggest great quizzes, we can keep them on track with revision reminders - full detail about the tasks students are set. We can really differentiate and set more challenging activities, too.
Pupils see the value of homework now
Brodhurst says the College now use tech to help students via mobile and their other home devices with ease, keeping them on top of all their homework and diary needs. And from the teaching point of view, it can now get a strategic overview of how students are performing at any given time in the school year, enabling it to instantly analyse their performance individually or by group so that it can intervene effectively and precisely if it has too.
Use of Satchel fits in very well, as it happens, with its wider digital transformation strategy. In the classroom it is a keen user of ed-tech like Google Classroom as well as Microsoft O365 for content creation and classwork. In parallel, a cloud-based solution to store and analyse staff performance data, including appraisal and training and professional development information, is also cutting down the time needed for such admin, but also eliminates a lot of data entry needs, freeing up staff to focus on what they really want to do, learning, he says:
We use a variety of technological approaches in the college to communicate more effectively with our students and parents in ways that work for them, not just us.
Intriguingly, Brodhurst says he can’t really say if using tools like Satchel (which kids and carers know as ‘Show My Homework’) saved him money. Why? Because he says it’s not so much replacing older manual processes as adding functionality that the team didn’t actually know it needed until it had it:
We will eventually get rid of paper planners, within the next year or so probably, and sure, that will then save us a small amount of money. But we don't always look for cost savings as a reason for opting for tech - Show My Homework has enabled us to rapidly and effectively improve off-site learning, and for that alone it's been worth every penny.
But of course, in the context of education, while money and investment is important, really it has to be the student experience that is the criterion of achievement. Has this tech helped on that critical measure? The reassuring answer, at Carterton at least, is yes:
Show My Homework has helped us to raise the attainment of higher ability students, as it has helped teachers to stretch and challenge them through differentiated tasks - we increased our effectiveness in this respect very quickly.
But it’s also been great for students needing extra support, as their parents were more able to support learning at home as tasks are more fully explained, support resources provided daily, and communication facilitated through the app. This helped them to progress more rapidly than before we had the software, we think.
Where will the College and its busy students go next with this kind of software-enabled education? Brodhurts says the plan is to roll out a more of the platform’s functionality, increasing, for example, the option for more online electronic submission of work.
He’d also like to use software like this to provide real-time feedback to parents on positive aspects of their child's work and behaviour - which, he thinks, combined with the right approach to including appropriate devices and technology physically at school itself, will mean that:
we can truly equip our students, staff and parents with the learning tools they need for today.
And maybe best of all - even the most reluctant homework-doers seem to be coming round to the idea, too:
Kids, when they're honest that they know that they need to do better, they're actually very receptive to it, because they don't like not doing well.
You always get students who are not in favour of homework first off, but grudgingly, in a lot of cases, they recognise the value of it because it helps them get better outcomes.