Independent Schools Guide: Putting digital at the core

Digital and virtual technology is increasingly becoming a part of daily life and Scotland’s independent schools provide many opportunities for their pupils to harness and develop the skills required for a future career in a digital world.

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Studies have shown that more than 74 per cent of the country’s businesses are experiencing a digital skills shortage.

By incorporating these skills into curriculums and co-curricular activities, the schools aim to tackle this by preparing pupils for as many career opportunities as possible.

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Lise Hudson, Rector at the High School of Dundee, met with a member of the leadership team at Dundee University to find out how the school can best prepare pupils for future learning, and said digital skills were highlighted.

She says: “People tend to think [digital literacy] is using a computer but actually it’s coding, analysis, managing data and being able to use data to problem-solve. It is being competent and entrepreneurial and having emotional intelligence to apply these skills. Increasingly, it is also being able to keep yourself and data safe.”

The school is developing an integrated course which will start in S1 at the business education department and aims to blend entrepreneurial and digital skills in real-world projects with partnerships in the city.

Hudson adds: “We are trying to find something we can do that is unique in the school and I definitely think it is in the territory of real-life applications, and that is where I see digital literacy.”

At St George’s School in Edinburgh, the topic is a key strand of the curriculum from very early on. Head teacher Alex Hems says: “We have been working on this prior to the pandemic, building an understanding of computational thinking so that junior pupils, as they move through the school, start thinking about coding.

“We have a full-time permanent appointment of a colleague who is now head of e-learning and part of his responsibility is overseeing the development of digital literacy across the curriculum and who ensures it is really embedded.

“In terms of digital technology, we have to make sure that young people are fully alert to the amazing opportunities that are available to them and ensure they recognise how their skills are transferable.”

By already placing importance on both students’ and the staff’s digital abilities, Scotland’s independent schools were able to adapt to online learning swiftly at the start of the coronavirus pandemic.

Melvyn Roffe, principal at George Watson’s College in the Capital, says that his school made the use of smart devices ubiquitous among all pupils around six years ago.

He explains: “We don’t have a model where laptops are reserved for classrooms because that is not how anybody uses technology in the real world, so we decided that we would ensure everyone has their own device.

“In the junior school there is a school-provided iPad, which the pupils don’t own but they take home and have a responsibility for. Then in the senior school we have a bring-your-own-device policy, so everyone brings the device they feel the most comfortable with.

“That has set us up very well for lockdown because our teachers were already pretty comfortable about the role of technology in their pedagogy. It was a lot easier for them to shift to online and for pupils to respond positively.”

Simon Brian, head teacher at St Leonards School in St Andrews, says developing skills for a future career is very much embedded in the institution’s ethos, and agrees this was only enhanced by the pandemic.

He adds: “Our motto at St Leonards is ‘Ad Vitam’, which we interpret as ‘for life’, and digital skills are as much the skills for life we want to instil in our students as presentation skills, communication skills, leadership, time management and more.

“The IB [International Baccalaureate] curriculum is broad and incorporates opportunities for digital upskilling every step of the way. Our St Leonards Connected online learning platform, developed during the pandemic, has simply added to this, ensuring our pupils are fully prepared for a future career in an ever-changing world.”

For boarding students, technology has been instrumental in ensuring their continued learning and sense of community within their place of education during lockdowns and travel restrictions.

According to the Scottish Council of Independent Schools, there are more than 2,600 boarding pupils in Scotland from 79 different countries.

St George’s Hems says: “Technology has meant we can keep their education afloat and, very importantly, continue with as close as possible face-to-face contact. They have had one-to-one Zoom calls and the opportunity to continue to see their fellow students, even if they are only seeing them on the screen.”

Parents and guardians who may have understandable safety concerns around their child accessing the internet can rest assured that the schools have plenty of safety measures in place.

At the girls-only Kilgraston School, at Bridge of Earn in Perthshire, the pupils have been using tablets over recent years and the maths department is completely digital and paper-free.

Nearly 60 per cent of its girls entered STEM courses university level this year.

Headmistress Dorothy MacGinty says pupils bring in wifi-only devices to ensure they have limited internet access, and phones are not allowed during the day.

She says: “The police and other external organisations come into the school to provide training on social media. They inform our girls on how to portray themselves on social media and warn them of the dangers.

“But we also teach them about how to use it to their advantage. You need to be able to produce a positive profile for future employers and universities who will be looking at your profile. So we teach them how to enhance their profile while understanding the dangers.”

And it is proving to be beneficial for teachers as well as pupils.

This term, Kilgraston’s staff have been issued with iPads that they will carry throughout the day and can be connected to classroom-based docking stations as well as smart boards.

Staff at Clifton Hall School, in Newbridge, Edinburgh, have seen a positive shift in pupils’ attitudes towards social media and the internet as a whole in recent years.

Headmaster Rod Grant says: “In the last three or four years, I have been much more relaxed about social media.

“I think children are using it much more appropriately and we are having far fewer problems than we did five or six years ago.

“If anything it is actually children who are now complaining about their parents or older siblings for always being on their phones.

“This generation has learned from their siblings and the older generation, but I know that young kids aged nine or ten are dealing with parents who are always on their phone and they do not like it.

“It is that sense of being ignored or coming second to whatever the parent is doing on the phone gives them a completely different attitude to mobile phones when they get to, say, 13 years old.”

There are further positives when it comes to enhancing a child’s overall learning experience, with institutions innovating new ways of utilising technology for the better.

At George Watson’s College, pupils studying Religious, Moral and Philosophical Studies connected digitally with a contemporary philosopher in April.

Roffe says: “Rather than reading a book about a contemporary philosopher, the class actually had the philosopher himself in the classroom from his home in Australia and asked him how he would approach certain questions in their assessment.

“Although we had the technology to do that, until the pandemic came along no-one really thought about doing that.”

It is not just the pupils and teachers who are benefiting from the increased use of technology among schools.

Discussing the new format for parents’ evenings, Grant says: “Parents at home would previously have had to make the tea, get suited and booted, and drive several miles to the school just to have a ten-minute appointment.

“Staff would also be left on site until 9pm so they can see everybody. Changing that to an online ten-minute Zoom meeting has been massively beneficial, so we will keep that going forward.”

While technology can do wonderful things for enhancing a child’s learning, it is the relationships within the school that matter the most.

Brian says: “We fully intend to retain the flexibility offered by St Leonards Connected, and to maximise on the efficiencies which have arisen from it.

“Virtual learning most certainly has its place, but at the core of a St Leonards experience are the face-to-face interactions between all members of our community – they are the foundations for the strength of all we do.”

This article first appeared in the September 2021 edition of The Scotsman’s Independent Schools Guide. A digital version can be found here.