The Royal Society of Arts (RSA) Academy was opened in 2008 in Tipton, West Midlands, and has 1,200 students aged between 11 and 18. Formerly known as Willingsworth High School, the Academy was commissioned, and is sponsored by, the Royal Society for the encouragement of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce. It forms part of a group of five schools referred to as the RSA Family of Academies, all located in the West Midlands. The Academy was established with the aim of transforming lives in one of the most deprived parts of the country, a place where unemployment is high and where there are all of the usual indicators associated with hardship.
RSA Academy was one of the first academies in the UK to follow the Opening Minds curriculum throughout all year groups. Opening Minds is a competence-based approach to learning that enables students not just to acquire subject knowledge but to understand, use and apply it within the context of their wider learning and life.
As well as educational achievement, the Academy is focused on the acquisition of real world skills for their students. As a result, ICT and the Academy’s facilities play a central role in ensuring that students are equipped with the skills they will need to succeed in their future careers.
In 2010, RSA Academy moved into a new £23.5 million custom-designed building, built on the site of Willingsworth High School’s sports fields. ICT was integral to this development, as the Academy focused on seamlessly integrating technology into the new building, for the benefit of staff and students.
As part of the 2010 new build, the Academy was given a £1.8 million investment to transform its current ICT provision. The technology that the Academy was to have was specified by an IT consultant and provisioned by the preferred ICT supplier at the time.
After the completion of the building in 2010, and having had little input into what technology would work best for the site, staff started experiencing difficulties and recording frustrations with the new ICT systems. Tim Morton, Strategic Lead for IT at RSA Academy, explains: “ICT teething problems turned into a real frustration for staff; we were having to cope with systems not fit for purpose with third party software we didn’t want. We were set up on older server technology – Windows Server 2003, using RM CC4 and that was causing us real speed issues.”
After a number of years, the decision was made to transform the ICT systems to bring them in line with the needs of staff and pupils.
“Following the original investment in ICT in 2010, we knew we would have to undertake an overhaul of the technology with a tight budget,” continued Tim Morton. “However, we still needed the same level of provision and performance. As a team, we had to find a way of accomplishing our goals with just a fifth of the original budget.”
The Academy was approached by Entrust to assist with the planning stages of the ICT transformation and tackle the issues it was facing.
David Clark, Sales Service Leader, Learning Technologies at Entrust comments, “After visiting the Academy and gaining an understanding of what they wanted to achieve, we started to work on the specification for the technical design, system, software and platform. However, we knew that to achieve the complete overhaul of the ICT systems with only a small fraction of the original budget, we would need to bring in a partner to assist us with the project.
“Having worked many times before with Stone Group, and having found its team to be both incredibly knowledgeable in this specialist area and, importantly, great to work with, we had no qualms in appointing the company as our trusted service partner for the duration of this project.”
Staff and student devices
Using the £60,000 savings from the servers and storage, RSA Academy was able to put much needed resource into upgrading staff and student devices. Entrust and Stone Group specified 400 Toshiba 13” CB30 Chromebooks for students, due to their reliability and speed, as well as their high performance and simple maintenance. Using their Chromebooks, students are able to easily access Google Apps, collaborate and complete their work and then share with teachers and other students both inside and outside of the Academy.
The Academy has a location-independent learning strategy in place with a one-to-one device option in place for Key Stage 3 students. This meant that the new devices and infrastructure had to be fit for purpose to allow pupils and staff to access learning materials easily from any location within the school, or at home for Key Stage 3.
“Our one-to-one programme allows pupils to pay £1 a week to lease the devices, with the option to buy at the end of the lease period. This means we are able to offer our students the chance to benefit from a more flexible approach to learning at a more affordable price. Chromebooks are a great choice for one-to-one arrangements as they are very reasonably priced, so students can realistically purchase the devices if they want to.
“We also combine this with BYOD, allowing Sixth Form students to bring in their own devices to assist in independent learning. We have a single-point sign-in for the students to access Office 365 and Google Apps, so regardless of the device students can access what they need, when they need it”, commented Tim Morton.
Upgrading the computer suites
Although the Academy has a focus on mobile learning, having desktops in the traditional PC suite is still important to RSA as an environment for teaching.
As a result, Entrust and Stone Group provided RSA Academy with 140 StonePC Micro desktops. At just 4” x 4”, the StonePC Micro is Stone Group’s smallest form factor desktop PC. Complete with Windows 8.1, the StonePC Micro has helped the Academy to improve their computer suite facilities and increase desk space. The StonePC Micro devices are connected to the network with Office 2016, and are being utilised with Adobe Creative Cloud, Python and other programming tools installed to deliver RSA Academy’s Business and Computing curriculums.
“I have been very impressed with the StonePC Micro desktops”, said Tim Morton, “they are easy to maintain and integrate into our furniture. The also run silently, which is a big advantage in a busy classroom setting.”
In accordance with the Academy’s focus on mobile learning, staff were equipped with Lenovo Yoga 2-in-1 laptops. This allows the teachers to use their device in any classroom and from anywhere around the premises with the benefit of a fully-functioning computer and tablet in one.
“We try to be as device agnostic as possible. By allowing staff to choose the device they want to use, we are noticing real differences in the way that staff are utilising their devices. We are seeing more creativity in the way lessons are delivered to students, because staff have a vested interest in the technology they are using”, continued Tim.
In addition to the devices, the Academy fitted Apple TVs into the teaching rooms, so regardless of whether staff are using a PC, an Apple Mac or an iPad they can connect to the televisions and smartboards in the classroom, eliminating any issues with the diverse range of devices the staff may use.
The installation was completed during the four-week summer break before the students returned in the autumn term.
Together, Stone Group and Entrust recommended and implemented the installation of:
- Windows Hyper-V Server 2012 R2 with LBS licence
- Envisage system, the server network built on an industry standard Microsoft Windows platform developed and designed by Entrust
- 140 x StonePC Micro, Stone Group’s fully scalable desktop solution with a tiny footprint
- Upgraded existing desktops with Windows 8.1
- 400 x Toshiba 13” CB30 Chromebooks for students
- 17 x Lenovo Yoga 2-in-1 laptops and Ultrabooks for staff
- 52 x Apple TVs
The complete overhaul of the systems was completed with under a fifth of the original technology investment. Tim Morton comments, “By working collaboratively with Stone Group and Entrust, we were able to reduce the cost by an extra 25 per cent of the budget. It allowed us to combine our in-house expertise with Entrust and Stone Group’s deep understanding and experience of the educational ICT landscape.”
Talking further about the results the Academy has already seen, Tim Morton said: “We saved a lot of money by not going down the VMWare or Citrix route for virtual servers. We now have Windows 2012 R2, Hyper-V servers. In combination with an LBS license this meant we saved a lot of money in licensing for virtualisation of the network. Without Entrust and Stone Group’s experience and expertise in this area, we would not have been aware of this extra cost saving.
“From a teaching perspective we are seeing a marked difference in the creativity in teaching and student use of technology. Staff are much more comfortable with letting students explore ways of doing things rather than dictating the way they want projects completed. Instead of telling the students to put together a presentation using preferred software, students are left to decide how best to present their work. This can lead to students delivering anything from animation to video in order to deliver the brief the teacher sets. This can only happen when the technology is there to support this creativity, and students and staff have confidence in the devices they are using.”
Although the budget was tight, this time the Academy had complete control over the ICT strategy. They now have exactly what they wanted, thanks to the Stone Group and Entrust partnership, which has allowed them to achieve their vision for ICT.
We have been really impressed with the service from Entrust and Stone Group – you can specify details right down to the device level and they will deliver exactly what you want, without limiting you to a preferred group of devices. Their range and scope of what they can provide is fantastic and their knowledge and expertise in all areas we needed help with was encouraging for us to witness.