In 2016, BBC Wales ran a news item about how a new £40m ‘superschool’, Ysgol Bae Baglan, was about to open its doors and admit 1500 pupils and 200 teaching staff.
Replacing a primary and no less than three older secondary schools, this Port Talbot school would be distinctive in a number of ways - from the fact it would be only one of seven such institutions in the whole of the Principality able to offer education all the way from three to 16, plus how it would be a true community hub, staying open till 10pm and with its new canteen transforming into a cafe open to residents.
But those of us interested in new approaches to education were also struck by the emphasis on technology - something that seemed embedded into the whole school ethos and approach to teaching even before day one, with the report highlighting how 9 and 10 year olds were about to do most of their work on tablet computers, you get your school dinner via biometric identification, homework and assignments were to be stored online, learners would be using their new devices at home - and even how their performance in the Sports Hall would be digitally tracked and supported.
Ysgol Bae Baglan has now had nearly two years working like this, so we decided to check out how all these great ideas are working in reality, hearing back from its Acting Leader of Digital Learning, Paul Watkins.
We started with a perhaps unfair, but pretty understandable question, and one that most parents would probably have top of mind: has academic performance improved - and is that a metric that can be directly linked to this extensive use of tech, both in and out of the classroom?
And his answer was, it’s just too early to say definitively:
“The first year here was a combination of the schools coming together. Now with the current year 11 year group, who have now worked three years, they're in that third year of working one to one with the technology.
“Parents are saying to us that they wish they’d had these opportunities when they were in school, we are finding standards of work improving. And we are finding that because of the technology we chose, we are providing opportunities for pupils to develop essential transferable long-term work and life skills - learning to work collaboratively, over distance, evaluating each other's work. We are seeing definitive positive change in the way that they are working, especially with choices they're making with regards to what tools they are going to use to produce their work, and making those choices very effectively.
“But I can say for sure that we have definitely seen things that we wanted to see from early - such as the way the teachers have embraced this new way of working, and its impact in the classroom. Without a doubt, the overall standard of their work and their skills have improved, yes.”
An honest answer, even if it isn’t exactly what many exam results table-obsessed parents might want to hear. But Watkins asks us to look at this in a wider context for just now:
“For us, the benefits of technology speak for themselves – giving teachers back time and enabling more engaging and inclusive lessons. The key is knowing what you want to achieve and empowering students with the skills, knowledge and ability to succeed in the working world.”
That’s great, but what does that look like on the teaching and learning coal face? For a start, it’s about a lot more than just what perhaps digitally-native young people want to do with new tools, but also about the ones teaching them:
“I remember a conversation with one teacher in particular: ‘Why do I need to change the way I work? I'm a good teacher.’
“And I said, ‘Well you can look at your results, you can look at pupil achievement, and you can see the standard of work they're producing.’ But imagine if you could do more. A Geography teacher was looking at map reading skills with his class and we suggested he get an actual professional explorer into the classroom to explain more - which with Skype, he was then able to do.
“So he did his lesson that way, and he saw the level of engagement with his pupils completely change; pupils who would normally be sitting at the back were the ones who wanted to come and sit down in the front of the class: he saw the people who were normally quiet were the ones who were holding up their hands and speaking and asking questions of this explorer.
“Later, he told me that this lesson had been one of the highlights of his 17-year teaching career.”
‘Impact with regards to their reading and their writing’
But of course, the benchmark we have to always come back to is how empowered or not the actual learners are here. We asked Watkins what had perhaps struck him most about that aspect of his institution’s two year technological Odyssey so far - perhaps surprisingly it isn’t the kids always putting their hands up who seem to have been boosted the most:
“I've seen pupils who may not have necessarily achieved the levels previously that they are achieving now, and I believe that really is because of the tools now available to them, especially at Key Stage Three and Four; pupils who would have had difficulty in accessing resources, and pupils who struggle with confidence.
“These are pupils whose work may not always have reflected that true ability and understanding, who have documented special needs and require that help and support, who are really being helped. The amazing thing is once they start to find their voice, start to use it, and they start to grow in confidence, you start to see an impact with regards to their reading and their writing.”
Ysgol Bae Baglan’s chosen technology supplier is Microsoft, which has supplied it with a range of Windows 10 and Surface devices and accompanying software, such as Office 365, Microsoft Forms and tools such as OneNote Class Notebooks.
The school has also recently implemented Microsoft Teams, with Year 6 allegedly using that software for “everything”. It also works with a number of so-say Microsoft Innovative Educator Experts on-site to help staff and teacher release the full potential of Microsoft technologies, including Watkins himself.