Washington School in Sunderland is developing as a centre for excellence and places itself firmly at the heart of its community. The school is situated in the North East of England and serves a community that continues to face the challenges of unemployment and low aspiration. Head of School, Dr. Mike Beverley is developing a multi-layered approach using Digital Technologies that is providing students with the requisite skills and tools to access the brightest career prospects.
Washington School holds a specialism in technology and is rapidly developing an identity and reputation where targeted and confident use of digital technologies is a key focus of every member of staff.
Washington opened a series of new buildings and facilities as part of the BSF programme in 2009.
For the last five years, Washington has been tied to an IT managed services contract as part of its inclusion in Sunderland City Council’s Building Schools for the Future (BSF) programme. As part of the agreement, Washington was using a proprietary network, underpinned by eight physical servers and a Storage Area Network (SAN), housed in the school’s purpose-built ICT room.
When the contract was coming to an end, Washington wanted to switch away from the status quo and create a more flexible, innovative ICT environment that supported the school’s ambitions and educational style.
Jim Ferry, Network Manager, has worked on premise at Washington School for many years, and was transferred by TUPE during the managed services contract. “Things were too rigid. Not only did we want the school to have more autonomy over the way we consumed and paid for our technology, but we wanted more flexibility too,” comments Jim. “With a managed services contract, change was quite a protracted process and we often felt as if there was no room to create exactly what we wanted. On top of that, from a personal perspective, I felt as if the change in role was causing me to fall behind on some of the skills I prided myself on, because there was little opportunity to be involved in the school’s decision making process.
“We knew as soon as the contract was ending that we would look for an alternative way to manage our ICT services both on and off premise. As Washington has important ambitions to utilise ICT both in and out of the classroom, we made the decision to be bold and seek out a partner who could support, but not control our requirements. We were also convinced that we could find a more cost-effective solution if we measured our requirements carefully.”
Jim worked with the school’s Strategic Group, consisting of the Head of School, Business Manager and Data & MIS Manager, to create a brief that made their ongoing need for flexibility and freedom quite clear. Four suppliers were shortlisted, and Stone Group was successful.
Stone Group worked with Washington to completely replace the previous proprietary system with a custom designed network solution within the deadline constraints of the 2014 summer holidays.
Jim continues, “As a school, we had a clear idea of the type of network solution that would be best for us, and the Stone team effectively filled in the blanks by showing me what could be done, and how. They came to the school so all the group thinking was done on-site, which I really appreciated. When we sat down to plan out the network, we were already on the same page, which is something I didn’t feel I got from the other suppliers we invited to tender.”
Washington and Stone agreed the following technical specification as key deliverables for the project:
- A new Server and Storage Hardware infrastructure to consolidate the school’s existing physical environment onto a highly available virtual environment. Three high specification host servers with a Storage Area Network, running a VMware Essentials Plus virtualised platform.
- Overall strategy, including the migration of user/data and the future direction of the new environment, agreed in a technical planning session. A new Microsoft Active Directory Forest with Domain Level Trusts solution, running parallel with the existing proprietary infrastructure to assist with the migration and implementation of a new Active Directory/Group Policy structure.
- Migrate Washington’s existing Office365 environment to authenticate to the new domain. RM Unify for the federated services to give end users a recognisable desktop environment.
- A new Microsoft DPM 2012 backup system, with new system hardware hosted on repurposed server/storage hardware to support the new infrastructure.
- A new Windows 7 base image created and deployed to all supported end devices.
The new system, based around three Stone ProManaged S2600 servers, and a DotHill AssuredSAN 3330C Storage Area Network, went live just before the start of the new school year and has been fully functioning ever since. 13 virtual servers were provisioned to consolidate the existing environment and provide functionality and management for the new infrastructure. Three VMware vSphere 5 Essentials Plus Virtualisation hosts with high availability components were configured to provide the platform.
Stone worked with Washington to create a new Group Policy and file/folder structure to fit precisely with the school’s user and infrastructure needs. A new file system was needed to engender a ‘clean’ approach to the new system and protect against duplication. User account migrations were deployed over the six-week period, and each user was able to access the system with a request to change their password at next login attempt.
“Aside from the obvious benefits of this being our network which we control in every way, there have already been some incredible changes made at the school because of it, and also in the way we’re all working together,” explains Jim.
“Everybody has noticed simple things, such as log-in being a faster process, and the existing networked hardware, such as desktop PCs, has been running faster and without problems so far. Then there are some really innovative projects and methodologies that have been kicked-off in recent weeks, which are underpinned by the flexibility of our new back-end environment.
“We’re using SharePoint to create and share careers information and guidance via the network; not just with students on-site, but with their parents as well. We take our responsibility as the primary instigator of a child’s employment future in our local community very seriously, and we need this information to be as accessible as possible.
“Our sports staff are using their tablets out on the playing fields, wirelessly, to record pupil performance and create instant playback and comparison scenarios to help them perfect techniques such as goalkeeping in football or throwing the javelin in athletics.
“We’re also using Augmented Reality platform ‘Aurasma’ to improve our parent relationships. We’ve created a tool that lets people attending parent’s evenings watch personalised guides to their children’s lessons by accessing a code on the way into the venue. This means we can focus entirely on the child’s performance when we sit with the parents, rather than filling in background on what has occurred in general that term.
“None of this would have been possible without the new, more flexible system that Stone’s given us.”
An upgraded firewall and anti-virus solution has been deployed and tested. Excitingly, this is enabling the school’s first foray into BYOD, a test project with years 8 and 10 in the Autumn Term, as well as other future projects.
After the IT managed service contract finished, Jim was transferred back to Washington as an employee. The new network, associated projects and the school’s renewed enthusiasm for putting ICT at the heart of its teaching has also meant that Jim has a new colleague, another ICT team member to support the growing need.
Dr Mike Beverley, the Head of School at Washington comments: “We chose the right supplier in Stone, we’re very confident of that, and we’re keen to continue to work with them on some of our other ICT innovation projects, such as our BYOD trial. Leaving our managed services contract after the BSF programme has helped us put technology where we want it to be at Washington – integral to the development of 21st Century pedagogies that make the most effective use of digital technologies.
“We want to rapidly close the competency gap between our pupils and our staff using collaborative and engaging technology that helps pupils learn and teachers do their jobs. I’m not interested in always going for ‘the next hot thing’ or using ICT reactively to get results, but this new network is going to enable us to change our culture and use of technology.
“It’s already happening – there’s a small pilot project of classes trialling the ‘Flipped Learning’ teaching model, used by a significant number of Universities and High Schools in the USA, which requires much more ICT support in terms of access to research and online study materials. Teaching staff are becoming increasingly confident and competent with the provision of individualised feedback to students via pod/vodcast; although this will never completely replace written feedback.”
Stone has given us the flexibility, freedom and support we needed to get out there and try the things we knew would make a difference. The fact the project was completed on time and on budget is a huge bonus. Although we only installed the new system a few weeks ago, so it’s still rather new, I’m more concerned with the future we can now plan for, than the constraints we once had.