When your catchment area is some 350km2 in diameter, spanning lakes, mountain ranges and more, creating a community between yourself and your feeder schools is hardly going to be easy. But for Keswick School, in the heart of the Lake District National Park, overcoming obstacles is nothing new. And despite the distances, they have created a cutting-edge regional network - which has proved a huge success...
When we last featured Keswick School, they had just embarked on a Leading Edge project to provide a single computer network to unite students, staff and school communities across a sizeable area of North and West Cumbria. Three years on, we return for a progress report...
Thanks to the incredible commitment of all of the schools involved, as well as invaluable support from RM Education and the local broadband consortia, the network is now providing advanced ICT, simple administration and enhanced teaching and learning opportunities - right across the region.
Today, the network includes 400 computers at Keswick School and 100 across the five primary schools. All classes have interactive whiteboards and all teachers have laptops originally provided through the Laptops for Teachers Scheme.
Although many of the feeder schools are located in small, rural communities, ICT is now integrated into everything they do and its value is no longer questioned. In fact, everything is working so smoothly that the scope and potential of the vast network is often taken for granted. But it is a leading edge project that has been recognised by the DfES, and David has travelled to London several times over the past three years to talk about what the schools are doing.
The fact that just one full-time network manager, based at Keswick School, and two part-time technicians continue to manage and support the full network clearly demonstrates how well the network is working.
"The network doesn't let the schools down, so confidence in the system is high."
David Brown, Assistant Head Teacher,Keswick School, Cumbria
"For Keswick, the fact that the network works - all of the time - was absolutely key for us," says David. "We have had ICT for over 20 years, but the difference now is that people use it because they want to. It's simply expected that ICT is available and departments can just get on with it and use it whenever they want or need it."
He adds: "The thing with IT is that if it just works, people don't really realise what is going on in the background. The only time they notice an IT technician is if something goes wrong.
For us, we really only realise how good we have it when someone from outside of the school comes in and says 'Your computers work!'. While all the children in all the schools know that they are using one network, whether they realise how lucky they are is another matter."
While it's always a daunting prospect for younger children to move from a small primary school to a big secondary school, the single network means that they already have a level of familiarity with the computer systems they will be using.
Keswick School also operates a number of transition days based around different subjects. Visiting youngsters find that they can save all the work they complete on the day and access it again when they go back into school. And when they do move to their new school, the benefit of having used a common network is immediately clear.
Says David: "Whilst Keswick School directly serves the five feeder schools they still only represent just 50% of Keswick's intake (Keswick School is one of a small number of state boarding schools and has a large number of out of catchment pupils). But having a year 7 class where half of the students really know the system inside out is an incredibly positive thing for the whole class. We have found that it provides a great way for the classes to bond, as those that do know the system can help the others and get them involved."
What's more, the new year 7 students can instantly access all of their primary school work. One of the assistant IT teachers at Keswick will work with them to put their work into a folder and set them up with new folders for each subject - and then they're all ready to go. They know their way around the system and where to save their work, making life easier for everyone.
Since being connected to the WAN, all of the schools have noticed improvements in the confidence of both students and staff when it comes to essential skills and integrating ICT into lessons.
"It's fair to say that we have seen a sea change in the children's confidence in IT," says David. "There has definitely been an upward turn in the achievements at Keswick. The network has acted as a facilitator in building up both student and staff confidence.
"The network works, so students can simply log in, access files, store them and share them. From their point of view, it just happens. They have never experienced anything else - for them, it has just become the norm."
But over the past few years, teachers at Keswick School have also become skilled. David reports that they now seem fascinated with how ICT can help transform the way they teach: "ICT is just not an issue for staff any more. We used to hold inset training for new software, but we don't anymore, because teachers have the impetus to get on and sort it out themselves. Because they want to - not because they have to."
Teachers across the primary schools are also accessing and sharing resources - for the benefit of all. Because software is stored centrally on the network, it is available to all of the schools as soon as it is installed. So staff can easily share the documents and resources they create and use themselves and have a look around to see what else might be available on the system.
David adds: "We're making a major upgrade this summer, investing in over 200 new computers. But no-one is questioning whether we should do it - more why we aren't doing it sooner!"
The WAN has also brought about a change in focus for the network team at Keswick. Because the network is so robust, reliable and "just works", the team is not having to spend so much time resolving network issues. Instead, the technical team can develop the school's ICT strategy by investigating and introducing new teaching and learning technologies, like the interactive whiteboards and Laptops for Teachers. And they can really take the time to make sure that these are set up and used to best advantage and help support teachers to build their confidence.
The network doesn't let the schools down, so confidence in the system is high. Weekly visits to the primary schools help to retain that confidence, while also ensuring that any questions or concerns can be easily answered.
But technical support is also instantly available with a simple phone call. Because the network is managed centrally, Primary ICT Technician Paul Horder doesn't have to travel to a particular school to sort out any issues. What's more, if there is a problem at one school, the team can fix it and then roll out the fix to all of the schools before they even notice there is a problem. All updates are all run centrally at Keswick and then rolled out across the WAN. This leads to a much less disruptive experience for both students and staff.
Going forward, Keswick School is looking to develop a learning platform, which will allow them to improve and target communications for parents and offer personalised learning for students.
With a catchment area of over 350km2 and the region's rural nature, communications is a big issue for the school. But introducing a learning platform is a significant investment and David wasn't sure that the primary schools would be able or willing to commit to the undertaking.
Although there is more of a push for secondary schools to introduce learning platforms, David was pleasantly surprised when the head teachers of all of the feeder schools convinced him that they wanted to get involved - and move forward as one with the project.
The comprehensive features of the RM Learning Platform are gradually being rolled out across the network, leading with improved communication as a key priority.
The schools are still finding out exactly what the learning platform can offer. But there is still a lot of potential to explore - networked benefits, which will open up new opportunities for everyone...
Keswick School now serves five feeder schools across the National Park (two have amalgamated since the project started). Despite daunting geographic challenges, some innovative thinking from the school's Assistant Head Teacher, David Brown, inspired the creation of Keswick Area Schools Networking Together.
The topography of the area meant that the project was complex. But the computer network at Keswick School is now linked to each of the feeder schools, plus a custom designed Science and Conference Centre, creating a vast network that provides curriculum resources to 1,600 students aged 4-18, plus 150 teaching and non-teaching staff.
To find out more about how the project got started three years ago, click here to read the initial case study online.
Keswick School(Key Stage 3 and 4)
St. Herberts School(Key Stage 1 & 2) in Keswick
Braithwaite CofE School(Key Stage 1 and 2) 3km from Keswick
Threlkeld CofE School(Key Stage 1 and 2) 6km from Keswick
Borrowdale CofE School(Key Stage 1 and 2) 13km from Keswick
Bassenthwaite CofE School(Key Stage 1 and 2) 10km from Keswick