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The trust with technology in its veins

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Every pupil aged 4-11 has their own tablet and set of bluetooth headphones at The Cornerstone Academy Trust in Devon.

In a small village in rural Devon you will find one of the most technologically advanced schools in England. I recently visited Broadclyst Primary, the founding school in the trust, to find out how technology is used in the classroom and understand more about the pupil experience. I also caught up with chair of trustees, Samantha Chapman, to learn more about the trust’s vision and ethos.

On my visit I witnessed year 3 pupils presenting a programme on Mayan civilisation in the TV studio, year 6 pupils creating digital surveys on tablets for a Dragons Den project and I watched their ‘family-dining experience’ where pupils eat a high-quality meal cooked by a qualified chef, and take turns to serve each other. Although technology is highly visible throughout the school, the trust is keen to stress that pupils still write, have exercise books and that technology is simply there to engage and propel the curriculum.

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Samantha, can you tell me a bit about the trust and how it considers itself as 1 school across 4 campuses. Is the curriculum the same across all 4 sites?

Sam Chapman   Trustee modified

Yes and it’s driven by the notion of every child having the same experiences and opportunities, ones that we think are really important as a trust. For example, we are currently looking to put a TV studio in at Westclyst School and moving towards the same at Yeo Valley School. The technology side is a really important aspect, and that’s how we drive the whole cross-school system for teachers and for children. In terms of the curriculum, we have faculty and subject leads working across the trust, but there is still the expectation that individual teachers will think about how it applies to the children in their class.

The use of technology really stood out to me, especially as every child has their own tablet - what are you hoping to achieve by this?

At the trust, we don’t see the technology as a separate and individual activity, the use of devices is designed to be part of the children's learning process. If you think about how we operate as adults, we don’t spend much of the day not on our devices. Everything we do is online, so we’re building that experience for our pupils. I think we’re doing our children a dis-service not to think that technology is an integral part of their education and their futures.

I’m not saying that other schools don’t provide access to technology, but in my day job, working in education, I often see just a handful of laptops for a whole cohort of year 6 pupils and they’re only using them occasionally. That’s just not life, that’s not the future. It’s important to clarify that It’s not just about sticking pupils on devices, it’s about using technology as a tool in the classroom, seeing it as a fundamental part of everyone’s lives. It is also about when we don’t use our devices so that children don’t become attached to them all the time. Part of the learning is knowing when they’re useful and when to have time away and do things offline.

The other thing we use technology for is connectivity, and this is why the campus idea works. Take computing lessons, we have an expert teacher in that area teaching all 4 classrooms across the campuses, not just the 1 school where they're based, and the teacher in the classroom then manages and supports that lesson. That consistency with the children's learning is really effective.

I imagine you were set up to manage the pandemic and online teaching pretty efficiently?

Yes that’s right, in a very tricky situation we could mobilise very quickly. The children were online at 9 o'clock for assembly and took part in live lessons with their teachers throughout the day. It might not have been as specific and targeted as it would have been in the classroom, but we managed to deliver much of the curriculum for our children.

Although there has been a drop in our outcomes this year, it is nowhere near as significant as it has been nationally, because our pupils could access provision. It’s particularly noticeable at Yeo Valley where children’s outcomes have actually improved despite the high levels of disadvantage.

Can you tell me a bit about the governance structure across the trust?

Yes, rather like with the operational side, we’re trying to avoid thinking about the geography of our schools and instead consider how each school works and fits into the trust. 

The trust board has oversight and governance across all the schools. Again, it is centrally focussed and the committee structure feeds into the trust board. Trustees sit on the committees and provide the focus on those key areas of governance in relation to children’s outcomes and financial effectiveness. These then help the trust board to plan for that strategic direction in relation to how the trust or ‘school’ will deliver the vision for all children in each of the campuses.

We do not have governance at a local level in the same way as many trusts do. Our local school board focuses on curriculum, the way the individual pupil and families experience their education and being part of one of the campuses in the school. It maintains that sense of identity within each campus community, and enables us to ensure that our vision of all children having equity of access to the broad offer is realised.   

The trust mission includes the statement: “The trust has high expectations, builds children’s confidence, and ensures success for all.” Does technology within the trust help with teaching and learning for SEND pupils?

Yes and if we go back to the 1 school and 4 campuses idea, each campus has a unique cohort of pupils, but we have one central SEND service with a school nurse, a speech and language therapist and an educational psychologist (a current vacancy but it is our aspiration). Each school-based SENDCo works with our trust SEND lead and has access to this expertise.

Take post-pandemic speech, language and communication in our early years - we’ve addressed that holistically, and then we look at the context in each of our schools. The leadership team drives that ability for us to operate across the trust but we always come back to the child. I know I keep saying it, but that really is the focus for every decision we make as a trust board.

Do you have any tips on how other governing boards might promote the use of technology and devices to their school or trust leaders?

I’d say start slowly and build up. We started with the oldest children in Broadclyst having their own device first. We've only just started 1-to-1 devices in the early years rather than having class devices that you can wheel around. These devices belong to the children. Devices are just seen as another exercise book in the classroom - that's the shift of mindset. 

Alongside this, it’s about growing the digital platform that the teachers have access to, so that the content for learning is ‘within’ the devices the children are using. And of course, you also need to have really robust policies around managing the online safety aspect.

Broadclyst School has just received an Outstanding grade from Ofsted. How did you feel about that?

It validates what we’re doing at the school and trust, but there are so many other moments which make me proud of what we do. We have a relentless focus on making sure all of our children across the trust get the best experience. 

There has been a real transformation at Yeo Valley Primary School as we strive to give pupils there the highest quality environment and reflect what we do at Broadclyst School. The same for Westclyst School and Monkerton School. We want all children to have access to the same after-school activities, a forest school, the library, family-dining, wraparound care etc. 

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Are you thinking about growing the trust?

We know this structure works in a small trust, but in the last 12-18 months we have been thinking how it would work with more schools, larger schools and different types of schools. The belief is that our offer could be made available to more children, but we don’t want it to be watered down. We need to make sure that the hugely demanding expectations of what we provide are available across all the campuses.

It’s exciting to think that what we have achieved and the experiences of our children could (and should) be available to more children. We’re really at the beginning of that journey. 

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