Creative Innovation, not Flashy Hardware Gets Results

I don’t think our school, New Mills in High Peak, Derbyshire, is unusual in most respects. It’s a small comprehensive secondary school, with 600 pupils, that has space for 1000. We give our pupils the best education we can, using often severely limited resources.

However, some things do make us stand out a little bit. The school is 100 years old, and we share our small town with the Swizzels-Matlow factory, which makes Love Hearts and Fruit Salad chews amongst other childhood favourites. They are by far the biggest local employer, and generations of our pupils have previously followed their relatives up there to work. New Mills has moved beyond the industrial boom, which gave us our town’s name, and into socio-economic hardship. We want the best for our pupils. We’ve secured the continuation of our sixth form recently by moving out of Special Measures and won particular commendation for our leadership.

We are determined to lead properly, showing our pupils the opportunities that lie ahead of them, many of which may be beyond New Mills itself. Our core ethos is that we must ensure that pupils are passionate about one principle: technology is part of life, will be part of work, and must be understood and embraced.

Resourceful approaches

However, we have a noticeable gap between our collective passion as a school for technology, and the amount of cutting edge hardware and applications we have access to, because our budgets are limited. We’ve invested in essential, reliable ICT. We’ve chosen to chase success by picking our battles in terms of technology investment, and it’s really working for us. Together with our technology provider Stone Group, over the last five years we’ve built the best possible infrastructure to enable our classroom ambitions. We’ve an estate of around 500 devices for staff and students, including the 24 Macs in our media suite, two computer rooms, desktops in our library and a teaching PC in each classroom. We’ve got laptops available for lessons. But, for example, although Stone Group got our infrastructure ready to implement the BYOD scheme we’d love to have, we are awaiting funding to progress it.

So, we’ve made it our mission to bring technology to the classroom in any way we can, especially in the media department. I’m determined to get the message across that digital skills and technology competencies can be learned with limited resources. In fact, it makes lessons creative, resourceful and often very entertaining to teach.

Life skills

The media courses we offer at New Mills are the most keenly subscribed at our school. Currently, our technology resources are the best the school has, which is more testament to how vital digital access is for inspiring better learning. We work extremely closely with the ICT and computer science departments; we have many students in common and what we’re teaching is so closely linked – I might be offering a desktop publishing module in modern journalism whilst ICT is teaching HTML5 and web publishing methods, highly desirable dual skills.

Our kids often come into the media lessons very tech-confident, but I find that they often feel they are ahead of where their knowledge actually is. They are savvy touch-screen technologists, on tablets or phones, but the employment we want to prepare them for requires so much more, so we use our Mac suite to build desktop and multimedia confidence. For example, one of our female pupils recently went to a local bakery for work experience, where she found herself in the office helping produce marketing material using Photoshop, because she’d learned how to use it in class. I was delighted – it’s a brilliant example of how we encourage our pupils to aim for the highest use of their skills.

Using contemporary resources keeps our lessons lively and makes use of the ICT we have available. We use our WiFi network in the media room to source examples of primary, secondary and tertiary sources for English literature assignments or SMSC discussions. I let children choose their resource, obviously within the guidelines of our e-safety charter and restricted browsing. We use YouTube a lot, to demonstrate examples of video media, which, considering up till recently we were transferring 1980s BBC VHS tapes to disc in order to view, this shows how our network infrastructure is vital to good teaching.

Well prepared

Combining the technology we have in school with my own resource has become a regular classroom aid. Often I’ll use my own iPad to project work onto our shared screen in the classroom using an app I sourced myself, or I’ll highlight a pupil’s work or ideas by showing the class. My colleagues are doing similarly creative things in their own classrooms, to ensure technology stays key to every lesson. I believe that the more natural you can make integrating your own technology into your job look, the more positive influence it’ll have on our pupils.

The strategy is working. When Stone Group refreshed our last PC Estate, they brought our start up times down from 15 minutes to 7 seconds for some machines. So we just open our software, or our browsers, and get on with the lesson.

Yes, some computers are slower than others, all across the school there’s devices that we’re keen to put to better use. However, rather than sit and wait for an unachievably large pot of money to be granted for brand new machines, we’re refreshing the ones we have, improving their memories, security and connectivity, which is cost effective and quicker for us. In the past few years we’ve sent a steady stream of students to university to study media production, communications and computer sciences, including several to Edge Hill University, which is highly regarded and focused on employability post graduation. The combination of reliable but limited resources, the tidal wave of enthusiasm from the kids for the subject matter and some solid, creative lesson planning is changing our results. I’m really proud of the innovative ways our kids, and our teaching staff find to make best use of our technology. We truly get the most out of what we have.

Although New Mills’ industrial history and recent economic misfortunes have shaped the lives of many of our former pupils, we are extremely hopeful that a passion for technology, and what it can help you achieve, will make the difference to current and future school leavers.


David Harbord is the Head of the Communications Faculty at New Mills School in Derbyshire. As well as teaching media to year 7-11, David teaches English Literature and Language A Level students. David