From the age of 4, I knew that I wanted to be a teacher like my parents. I admired and idolised them for their passion, reputation and philosophy. I enjoyed a diverse and successful career, but it was not always, or even, often easy. The hours that I put in outside of school became unmanageable and affected all aspects of my health. I had not previously resented the time commitment, or even found it intrusive until I married and had a family of my own - realising that I was ‘scheduling’ them around my work.
The education system increasingly distracts from the ‘teaching’ with the pressure of evidencing the ‘impact’ - the ratio of administration to actual teaching is grossly unbalanced. The average career for teachers is now only 5 years, a large proportion of these careers end in mental and physical breakdown. With talented teachers believing that they are anything but. I had to leave teaching because I truly believed that if I didn’t, I would become seriously ill. I had already experienced what I thought was a stroke (thankfully, it was not).
There must be a better way – there is a better way – we must insist on a better way.
This is what led me to work with Kamal Ahmed at GSL Education on developing Cloud Connect Services and now Grow Virtual Ltd.
Throughout my 20 years in education, at all levels from teaching to governance, and now also as a parent, I have experienced the challenges brought about by administrative systems that, despite the best efforts of the staff involved, simply do not work as they should.
I have worked with and am proficient in a wide range of systems and structures. I understand the need for quality assurance, consistency and systems that work. I have experienced first-hand the frustrations and negative impacts of inaccurate data, poor communication and delays in reporting.
I am passionate about the wellbeing of children, parents and staff. I believe emphatically that this can only come about through efficient and creative organisation of administration and the systems used.
The concept behind Cloud Connect Services was to support schools in streamlining their administration, to improve efficiency and ‘customer service’; so that schools can spend their ever-tightening budgets on staff/resources for improving teaching and learning and staff/student welfare. This can be achieved by outsourcing key administration tasks to experienced professionals in each field, project managed by financial specialists and educational professionals.
As schools are increasingly evolving towards a business model of delivery, the administrative demands, along with pressures to provide quality ‘customer service’ and ‘demonstrate productivity’ are growing to excessive levels.
The administrative tasks are often disseminated between many people within the school with limited experience and skills, and to teachers - adding to their already excessive workload.
This results in lack of accountability, high staffing costs, incomplete tasks, errors and inaccurate/out of date data. All of which negatively impact on productivity, efficiency, wellbeing and ‘customer service’. OFSTED, in their re-drafted Inspection Handbook (2019), highlight the need to reduce workload for teachers, recognising the negative impact that it has on Teaching and Learning.
It is also well documented that schools have been facing huge funding challenges for many years, with many of them in extreme deficit.
Identifying a pilot project:
The Cumberland School, part of The Cumberland Schools Trust in Newham, London and its innovative CEO Simon Elliott, saw that the concept behind Cloud Connect Services (CCS) was one worth exploring.
In order to test the idea of remote working, he assigned Cloud Connect Services several administrative tasks. The first of these involved supporting families in successfully switching to using ‘sQuid’ to manage school payments. We worked on a specific list of contacts who had been hard to reach and had not yet registered. Once we had established contact, we explained the service, provided remote technical support and recorded our progress.
The second task, was to complete a data check for all of the students and their contacts held within the SIMS platform. Maintaining a database of accurate, up to date phone numbers and email addresses is a constant headache and can have serious health and safety or safeguarding consequences. Most schools rely on a regular, usually termly data sheet, which is printed and sent home for parents to update and return. This data is then manually entered often by a range of staff and sometimes by temp staff brought in for this specific task. If the sheets are actually returned, often the writing can be very difficult to decipher and naturally, due to human error, mistakes can be made when entering the data. There can also be significant language and literacy barriers.
Over the summer holidays, CCS were able to test all of the phone numbers held in the system, make corrections to email addresses and check key permissions stored. A short list of families who could not be reached was provided to the school for physical follow up. Families were extremely positive in their responses, recognising the effort that the school had gone to, to ensure the safety of their students and good communication with their parents and guardians.
Due to the fact that this work was carried out by experienced educational professionals: communication was effective – reinforcing positive relationships with the school’s community; data was entered accurately and consistently; data entry was quality checked; and school staff could be confident that contact could be made with families and guardians for their students.
In performing these initial tasks, CCS were able to foster trust and demonstrate that remote systems could be effective. When a member of staff needed temporary replacement for 1 year, a perfect pilot opportunity presented itself.
Attendance Management and Education Welfare – remote service pilot:
The Cumberland School, Newham is a secondary academy with a cohort of around 1500 students. It is part of an academy trust with (OFSTED rated ‘outstanding’) The Forest Gate Community School, and the newly federated Hackney New school.
The Cumberland School had undergone significant staffing change and the headteacher Mr Deria had joined the school in September 2019, having previously been the Deputy Headteacher at The Forest Gate Community School.
CCS were contracted for 1 year to perform attendance management duties including those of an Education Welfare Officer.
This role was to be performed remotely with onsite attendance only when the role required it – for example for Attendance Panel Meetings.
There was a large pastoral team in place with a Head of Learning and Student Mentor for each year group, form tutors and an onsite attendance officer who managed the absence line, letters or medical evidence from parents/guardians and monitoring students arriving late.
Aims for CCS:
Our aim for the pilot was to demonstrate that heavily administrative roles can be effectively delivered using remote working:
Nazim Ahmed - Assistant Headteacher with responsibility for Attendance
Nazim explained that he had been very anxious about the idea of using a remote service. He was concerned about communication and whether the team would meet his high standards in terms of attention to detail and meeting deadlines. Following the project, he stated that he had been extremely grateful for the dedication and flexibility shown by the CCS team. He had made significant changes to the management of attendance in the school, and they had adapted quickly. He had found them a great support and appreciated their professional input throughout.
Omar Deria – Headteacher
Omar confirmed that he would have liked to have continued to work with CCS following the project. He had been impressed with their work and dedication and appreciated their feedback and suggestions. He hoped that there would be an opportunity to continue the relationship.
Tasrin Shahana – Head of Learning Year 9
Tasrin stated in her response to a staff survey, that she could not have got through the year without the support of CCS.
Robert Cole – Learning Mentor Year 8
Expressed his thanks to the CCS team for their support and advice and stated that he felt he had learned a great deal from them.
Due to the unusual nature of this type of working, many staff initially had reservations and admittedly felt anxious when the CCS team first began the role. Some were anxious about the impact this could have on their own roles and job security moving forward.
This did have an impact on the project at the beginning. Trust and respect had to be built and this meant that some systems and processes took longer to embed. The impact on attendance percentages and efficiency of persistent absence management was therefore delayed.
There was significant change in the school at the same time as the project, with regard to expectations of the pastoral team. Training and support was needed which CCS took an active role in. Had the pandemic not been a factor – the project would have had more time to settle and the impact would have been clearer. Statutory referrals were suspended and cancelled on instruction from the Government, which meant that this aspect of the role could not be demonstrated to its full potential.
School staff, in particular senior leaders are often anxious about the concept of remote working and remote staffing, as they feel reassured when they can ‘tap someone on the shoulder’. However, we have learned through this project and through the challenges brought about by Covid 19 that technology provides the ability to ‘tap anyone on the shoulder’ wherever they are. Files can be securely shared at the touch of a button. Staff who work in schools often have multiple duties to perform and are often not based full-time in their office. This means that they often are not available for a tap on the shoulder. When roles are carried out remotely, there are no distractions or reasons to leave ‘the office’. This was demonstrated as a benefit as families, guardians, agencies, and staff knew that when they called, we would answer. We were able to coordinate various groups in order to solve problems extremely quickly.
With regards to the ability of CCS to perform the role assigned – we demonstrated professional knowledge, skills and meticulous record keeping. This was endorsed by all staff that we worked with including those in external agencies. The role was performed to a high standard, at a low cost to the school compared to directly hiring a temporary member of staff for the role.
There were additional benefits to having experienced educational professionals undertaking the role. CCS staff were able to provide consultative support and offer valuable training and advice to the whole pastoral team. This not only had a positive impact on the performance of the team in their roles, but on their confidence and well-being.
In completing this pilot project as Education Welfare Officer for The Cumberland School, CCS demonstrated that their aims of reducing costs, improving efficiency and accuracy, improving well-being and reducing stress are achievable. Remote administrative services can be effective and successful in schools. A school and its staff must embrace the concept for it to work to its full potential and when they do it can have an extremely positive outcome for all stakeholders.
CCS would like to express their gratitude to the whole staff team at The Cumberland School and to the families who we worked with.
Particular thanks go to:
CEO Mr Simon Elliott for his faith in us and innovative attitude.
Head Teacher Mr Omar Deria for his support of the project.
Assistant Head Teacher Mr Nazim Ahmed for his dedication to the project and open minded approach helping to gain the support of other staff members.
The entire Pastoral Team for adapting to the changes and making us feel welcome and valued.
We would also like to thank:
The team at Newham Borough Council who also embraced the project and worked closely with us.
Footnote: Grow Virtual Ltd formerly known as Cloud Connect Services