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Phillippa De'Ath - 22 February, 2017

Category : Blog

How to successfully launch your Free School (Part II)

This is the time in pre-opening when the EFA cheque book is out for IT which can be a hugely daunting task for the uninitiated. I’ve spoken extensively about the following topics and am surprised they’re still up for debate. This is only the case in Education (which is what we’re all trying to change!).

This is the time in pre-opening when the EFA cheque book is out for IT which can be a hugely daunting task for the uninitiated. I’ve spoken extensively about the following topics and am surprised they’re still up for debate. This is only the case in Education (which is what we’re all trying to change!).

1. Use the Cloud

  • In 2012 several school IT companies told us that you couldn’t run a school in the Cloud. They are more open to this kind of thinking. Realise that the resistance is based on their skills and sales targets, and not your needs (I began my IT career setting up servers for the world’s biggest server company, so if I can change my mind, so can they!)
  • You don’t need VPNs or other clunky layers to access the best of breed applications when you use proper SaaS services. If it sounds complicated, chances are it will be
  • Even device management can be Cloud based now so there should be no reason for a server in your school
  • Turn your server room into a music practice room for the benefit of all your students and the environment, and let someone else run your mini data centre for you!

2. Put staff efficiency and training first

  • Ask staff to train each other. A 4 hour training session on using interactive whiteboards isn’t fun for anyone; talking to your new colleagues about the cool things you’ve done with Google Classroom is more likely to drive innovation, collaboration, and productivity in your school. You could even ask one of your IT providers to let you use their space to do it, but facilitate rather than train before you move into your building. Do what startups do (you are one!) and bring decent, healthy snacks to the training room
  • Focus on supporting your staff on new things like processes for collaboration in the Cloud rather than what the C://Drive is or how to email attachments. Use good naming conventions from the beginning

3. Obsess about integrations

  • Nicky Morgan warned against “constraining the power of data” in schools at BETT 2016; in the pre-opening phase you have the opportunity to plan against such constraints. Data is notoriously badly managed (either over-restricted or poorly shared) by education data companies, but you can avoid making decisions that lock you in early on to a particular path. Most importantly, you need ready access to your assessment data in a variety of formats to allow Ofsted, and likely a demanding school board, the chance to understand what great progress students are making in your school.
  • One way to deal with this is to make sure that you use systems that have open APIs and are easy to use for all staff, not just founding data junkies
  • It’s OK to use spreadsheets when you’re small, but make sure you have a good plan for scaling and migrating that historic data to open, secure systems as soon as possible once you’ve launched
  • Ask parents what they’re expecting to see – they’ve supported you this far and it’s fair to ask them what would make sense to them in understanding the story of their child’s life at school

 

Phillippa De'Ath - 16 January, 2017

Category : Blog

How to successfully launch your Free School (Part I)

Just having a brilliant team and a great idea isn’t enough if people don’t know about you and can’t talk to you about it. You won’t have the resources of an open school (lots of teachers, a printer, a kettle…) to market your offer, so you have to do lots and lots of events, flyering,

Just having a brilliant team and a great idea isn’t enough if people don’t know about you and can’t talk to you about it. You won’t have the resources of an open school (lots of teachers, a printer, a kettle…) to market your offer, so you have to do lots and lots of events, flyering, talking to people in person, going to find them as well as getting them to come to you and using technology to reduce the effort and increase the quality of communications.

Be present
We spoke to hundreds of parents in person to get our school full for opening, via our own events, the feeder schools, park and playground trips and small gatherings in coffee shops or local community centres organised by keen parents. We met families on Good Friday to reassure them we’d be open on time and would provide the kind of education they wanted. If the only tangible thing your school has is your team and a prospectus, then your team have to be out talking to people. This includes your Principal Designate, who may not be used to such a street-facing role.

Be available
We had a Skype phone that could always be answered by someone knowledgeable from any location (and you can keep the number when you move to full land phone) so parents got the same response they would get from calling an open school. I cannot believe how many free schools don’t have a phone number, considering how many calls parents make to us. Parents need to talk to you, for reassurance as well as practical details.

Advertise
Advertise effectively. Bus rear-end ads have given us the best return, they’ll be seen in the right geographical area by all people and you can normally get a good deal if you haggle.
Use Mailchimp, Eventbrite and other free and effective tools for making you stay better engaged with your parents, as any growing business would.

The brilliant team
This is a bit motherhood and apple pie but in pre-opening there are three crucial roles in addition to the founding team (which you should keep as lean and capable as possible):

  • Head Designate: Obvious but they need to be brilliant and you need to get on with them. Good relationships and cultural fit are even more important in a start up phase when you’re building the organisation together. The head needs to be resilient and 100% on board with the vision; make them prove this to you in the interviews.
  • Operations/Business Manager: A weak point for all academies not just free schools, as the requirements and levels of accountability are so different compared to established community schools. You’ll need good software that you can use from anywhere, access to a good accountant and someone who can switch between managing lunch money and the EFA capital claims. I would recommend sharing someone brilliant with another school over having a dedicated under-qualified person. In this model, employ an administrator who can communicate really well with parents and the business manager.
  • IT manager: You’re reading this blog because you’re interested in data and technology so make sure you hire someone who believes in your vision and has enough experience to manage your ICT providers and train your staff as well as manage the network and reset your passwords. I think this is a two-man job, and would recommend a Senior plus an Apprentice so speak to your local vocational provider. You might be able to get someone to join in pre- opening from an apprenticeship scheme, and get a grant for doing so.

Don’t expect all the ICT to work perfectly on day one unless you have some good on your side managing it. Make sure you have back up plans e.g. access to a 3/4G connection for when your broadband is not installed on time (this can take 6 months at least).

Collecting and Protecting your data: The Data Roadmap 

Good housekeeping, safety and security of student data starts as soon as you receive applications. If you’re using collaboration tools like Google Apps for School, make sure you have signed the right model funding agreements for data processing outside the EU. Make a single person responsible for Data Security and Quality and put in place good practices before school opens. This will make the preparation for your pre-registration checks, opening day and first census all the more easy.

Make sure things you want to communicate electronically can be viewed on phones as well as computers to reach the widest possible audience. Arbor is free for Free Schools in pre-opening so you can use Arbor to send SMS to parents and begin building up profile data.

You can save yourself lots of time and errors with things like Google Forms or Survey Monkey, that can help you collect information from parents and new staff electronically, and leave you time to focus on the harder-to-reach parents, who might not have internet access or English as a first language.

In the next blog, I’ll focus on ICT in free schools.