Gerald Haigh, ex-headteacher, journalist, and author of a number of leadership books investigates the iAbacus and interviews headteachers to uncover why it’s unique and innovative.
What is it about the iAbacus?
So often when you’re introduced to a school management or improvement product, the first thing that pops up is a screen full of text, coloured boxes, and headings. You squint at it, and hurriedly reach for your other glasses. ‘It’s very easy really,’ says the presenter, who then has to spend time explaining what you are looking at.
After many years of that experience, the iAbacus was a revelation. Lo and behold, I only had to look at it to know what it is all about. There on the screen are the Ofsted judgements and categories, together with the virtual beads that you can slide across with the mouse or your finger on a touch screen. You choose a category – ‘behaviour’, say. ‘Where are we with this at our school?’ you ask yourself. Because you know your school well, you rapidly, and probably quite accurately, compute the essential variables. ‘Well, we’re definitely not in category 3, and we’re just shy of Outstanding. I reckon we’re at the right hand end of Good.’ So you slide the bead accordingly. Or you might call over the colleague who’s with you. ‘What do you think, Terri?’ So, within a very short time, not only do you understand what you see, but you have put it into practice and used it collaboratively. You have already ‘got’ the essentials of the iAbacus and started applying it to your own school.
The physical action of moving the bead, incidentally, is really important. To use a straightforward physical action to summarise, make explicit and reinforce a whole raft of mental judgements, is immensely powerful – chess players do it all the time. That instant accessibility and immediate interaction is one of the great strengths of the iAbacus.
Now think again about that earlier experience of encountering a text-heavy, enigmatic screen. After fifteen minutes, although the mist might be clearing, you are struggling to fit what you’re told into the context of your own school experience, and it’s going to be some time yet before you can actually crank the tool up and start interacting with it. If you’re a school leader, then you may well be motivated to stick with the complexity of what you’re shown, especially if you’re going to spend money on it.
But it doesn’t end there does it? At some point, you have to explain it to colleagues whose enthusiasm may well be several layers below yours. That can be quite a challenge. How many schools have potentially good software tools of various kinds languishing unused on their networks because nobody has the time or the motivation to fire them up and put them to use? From the start, the iAbacus was designed to avoid being side-lined on the grounds of complexity.
John Pearce, sometime teacher, head, adviser, inspector and now consultant who conceived it, says, “I saw heads and teachers worn down by systems which seemed to be competing for increasing complexity. I wanted something deceptively simple, that anyone in a school could own, understand and use to tame the intricacies of school improvement. I wanted a “Yes we can” attitude by teachers to replace the “No you aren’t” hectoring they so often hear.”
So far so good. On that first encounter I could see that within minutes of seeing iAbacus, and with a minimum of explanation, you can be using it to summarise and make explicit what you feel to be the current position of your school measured against key categories.
Professional judgement first – data to follow.
Only after some later reflection did I realise that the instant accessibility was actually an expression of a much more profound aspect of the iAbacus, which is that it uses as its starting point the professional intuition, opinions, judgement – feelings, or even what many would call ‘nous’ of heads and teachers. It’s the difference between – ‘The data shows me that your school requires improvement’, and ‘Where do you think your school is on the Ofsted scale? What makes you think that?’ That’s a crude rendering, but it gets to the heart of what iAbacus is all about. ‘Right’, you say, ‘Is that all it is then?’ To which the answer is, ‘No, of course not.’ The purpose, after all, is improvement. So having placed your bead – deciding that Behaviour is ‘Good’ for example – the iAbacus then shows you, without being asked, the Ofsted criteria for ‘Good’. First, you find yourself validating your initial opinion, then, it invites you to provide supporting evidence against those criteria. Most of it you already have; all you need to do is indicate the links to it. Your aim, obviously, is to move your bead to the right, ideally well over into the ‘Outstanding’ area. The iAbacus now further invites you to set out how you will do that, with the aid of the ‘Helping’ and ‘Hindering’ sections – these are really important and we will meet them again shortly.
So – the iAbacus is clever, accessible, powerful and effective. But don’t take my word for it. In search of confirmation of my initial impression, I talked to some of the users.
What do heads and teachers think?
Lisa Sarikaya is head of Belgrave St Bartholomew’s Academy, a 480 pupil primary in Stoke-on-Trent. In the Summer term of 2013, the school’s leadership team determined to revisit the school’s self-review and evaluation process. They were impressed by iAbacus because of the logic of the approach. ‘It enabled us to make a judgement about ourselves against the Ofsted criteria, provide evidence for this, and then formulate an action plan to move forward in each of the key areas,’ says Lisa. The iAbacus is now a key improvement tool for St Bartholomew’s, used to produce the overall School Improvement Plan.
Perhaps most importantly, Lisa found that staff were immediately able to grasp the iAbacus principle, and so she could quickly involve them. ‘Because it’s not complicated everybody gets it. Not having to explain it makes it easy to share.’ Now, the iAbacus is well embedded at the school. ‘As a result of using it at SLT level we decided to roll iAbacus out to all staff in two ways. All subject leaders have now used it to audit their subject and have now formulated their Action Plan for the year using the iAbacus format. This will be reviewed and updated each term.’
Andrew Sharp, head of Robin Hood Primary in Nottingham, introduced the iAbacus in the summer of 2013. ‘We use it for our school improvement plan – taking the evidence of where we are now, and how we can move on. We keep clear themes around literacy and maths, showing progress within them, thinking about what’s going well. The evidence of how we’re doing then feeds back into our Self Evaluation Form (SEF). ‘
As with Lisa Sarikaya, it’s the clarity of the iAbacus that appeals. ‘Other systems designed to do the SEF are overly cumbersome, for example including all the detail of the Ofsted criteria. We take the headings of the criteria, and we can say our achievement is this, and this is why we think it.’ Andrew, too was soon able to involve further groups of colleagues with iAbacus. ‘We moved on to use it for the appraisal process. We set up a ‘Primary Appraisal Audit’ template, using the DfE Teachers’ Standards, the same for everybody and gave staff half a day out of school to complete it.’ Most recently, at Robin Hood, the iAbacus is being used for self-appraisal by teaching assistants, using the Teaching Assistant Standards template.
Another teacher, Stuart Spendlow of Grimoldby Primary in Lincolnshire, who has considerable experience of IT for learning and management, uses the iAbacus as a personal professional self-evaluation and development tool. He visits and updates it every four weeks or so, adding evidence – or rather links to evidence because, as he says, that’s one of the strengths of iAbacus. ‘You can add files, and web links and you can type evidence in also. But you don’t need a massive folder, because the iAbacus makes it easy to find what you’re looking for. You can plan your own journey, make action plans and have them all in the same place.’
Crucially, too, because it’s web-based it’s available anytime, anywhere. ‘It’s there in my bookmarks, I can use it on my iPad at home, my laptop at school or at home, or on any device. I like stuff to be easily accessible and the point is that I can access iAbacus anywhere.’ For Stuart it’s important that the iAbacus can be a complete and personal career record. ‘Schools do things in different ways, but I need something that will go with me when I move on and fit into my next place – in other words, something I can customise and will continue to use in the future.’
In this respect, it’s worth noting that iAbacus is personally password protected, so a teacher using it for personal self-evaluation can be confident that their thoughts and reflections are kept private. Stuart flags this up as a key feature, it may well be that some teachers do not realise that in other systems, personal self-evaluation comments are open to other users, including leadership.
It was clear to me, from talking to these teachers, that the iAbacus has really found the right three-way balance that makes it, at the same time, accessible, concise, and comprehensive. How does it do that? Let’s summarise…
The iAbacus is simple but not simplistic.
I heard the word ‘simple’ many times in my quest to find out about the iAbacus. Stuart Spendlow said , ‘The iAbacus is unashamedly simple’. But why ‘unashamedly’? Because John Pearce, who based the iAbacus, on his experience using a ‘real’ abacus to illustrate his school improvement presentations, intended it to be so. ‘It took a lot of time to make it simple,’ he says. In a sense that’s true of so much brilliant technology.
A Rolls-Royce is childishly simple to drive, but nobody would dream of calling the vehicle itself ‘simple’. So, to extend the analogy, the iAbacus presents a coherent and engaging face to the world, and is easy and satisfying to drive. But what it achieves is very grown up, very sophisticated and highly professional.
The iAbacus pays its users the compliment of assuming that they are professionals who know what they are about. Headteacher Andrew Sharp clearly believes that a capable school leader does not need to be overloaded with detail. He is certain that the headings of the Ofsted inspection criteria provide a sufficient basis for the gathering of evidence and the formulation of action plans. Many school leaders will nod at that, mindful of their impatience with systems, lectures and courses that are begging to be heckled with, ‘Please get on with it’. ‘The iAbacus process is simply about ‘What are we doing well? How can we do it better?’ That’s all it needs to be,’ says Andrew.
You surely already have what iAbacus is asking you for.
The iAbacus shows you the criteria for the Ofsted judgement you have chosen, and where you have placed the bead. Then it asks you for evidence and data to justify it. You will already have most of it. What you have to do is identify it, know where it is, and add the links to the iAbacus. If there’s a need to produce it for any reason, it’s easy to do that. What you do not have to do is repeat all the evidence in a special format that fits the system. At the same time, of course, there’s nothing to stop users typing in extra information.
The iAbacus will, if you allow it, become the school’s common development ‘language’. Any school has many areas of development – with teams, departments, individuals, governors. Because the iAbacus is easily customisable, it can be used by any and all of these. Headings, categories, stages can all be setup fitted to the purpose. Andrew Sharp showed me many documents that had the familiar iAbacus headings. It’s become, for him, almost part of the school’s branding. That way the iAbacus process remains common and recognisable across the school. ‘Let’s do an iAbacus for this’. So in that sense the iAbacus really is a ‘one size fits all’ solution.
The iAbacus goes with you on the journey.
Whether it’s whole-school, departmental or individual self-evaluation and improvement, the iAbacus takes the journey with you. Because it’s interactive it leads and nudges you every step of the way. That’s very different from telling you what to do and then standing back, which is what other approaches tend to do.
The iAbacus recognises what’s important – what helps, what hinders.
One particular section, perhaps more than any other, emphasises just how well the iAbacus is rooted in the realities of school life and school improvement. It comes after ‘evidence’ and before moving on to construct an action plan, and it consists of two empty columns for you to fill in. One is headed ‘Helping Factors’ the other ‘Hindering Factors’.
Here you are invited to consider and record exactly what pressures, people, policies, errors, bad decisions are right now holding you up from being better, and, on the other side, what positive influences will spur you on, now and in the future. The challenge, of course, is to tackle the factors that hinder and enhance the factors that help. Where the iAbacus is widely used across the staff, it’s highly likely that patterns of hindering and helping factors will emerge – qualities of leadership, issues around whole-school behaviour, availability of CPD – as will collaborative action plans to deal with them. Again, like all of the iAbacus, here’s something
The iAbacus can easily be customised.
While it comes usefully pre-loaded with over 20 templates including many to suit Ofsted requirements – judgements from ‘Inadequate’ to ‘Outstanding’ across the top, categories down the side – everything can easily be modified, added to, or changed wholesale simply by typing in what’s required. In common with all the best software products, it can, and will be put to use in ways that the designers didn’t at first envisage. It can be a whole-school resource, or it can be used by a department, or by individuals for professional development. Stuart Spendlow says, for example, ‘I like the fact that you could start with a blank iAbacus and build it for any purpose. You could take it further and include it in the classroom, and use it with the children for assessment which is not what it’s currently marketed to do.’
The iAbacus encourages and supports collaboration.
The nature of the online abacus, especially on a touch screen, invites the user – a teacher, for example, at a demonstration – to try moving a bead. It’s actually difficult to hold back from having a go. And if there are two teachers, it implicitly invites a comment. ‘Why did you put it there?’ This starts a discussion, throughout which the bead sits there, a constant focus, drawing frequent glances.
Daniel O’Brien, founder of ‘OPEUS’, the software firm behind the iAbacus, describes a staff discussion scenario whereby a headteacher has the iAbacus on a digital whiteboard while the staff have it on their laptops and iPads. ‘Where do you think we are?’ asks the head, and all the staff slide their beads. The agreed position appears when the whiteboard is refreshed. A lively discussion results, encompassing evidence and, ultimately, the ‘helping’ and ‘hindering’ factors. This Collaboration feature within the iAbacus allows any user, at any time, to email all, or part, of an iAbacus to a colleague, or friend and ask for comments and ideas. I can see it being used for parental surveys, 360 degree leadership questionnaires and a host of other useful purposes.
The iAbacus is available anytime/anywhere.
The days when teachers and students could only work effectively on a desktop machine in school have surely passed. Web based software, and the widespread availability of wireless broadband means that users now expect seamless working, where the boundaries of workplace/home and travel no longer apply. The iAbacus recognises this, and because it is web based, is what some call ‘device agnostic’ or, as others prefer, ‘device neutral’. The term hardly matters, the point is, as teacher Stuart Spendlow finds, that you can log in and reach your iAbacus from any web-enabled device, and be working on it within seconds from home, school, a broadband-equipped train, even a beach hotel in Majorca when the sunshine, sea and sangria start to lose their shine.
Why not just try it?
Words and descriptions only go so far. Good software needs to be experienced hands-on. Sometimes that’s a time-consuming challenge, but the good news about the iAbacus is three-fold –
‘Just try it’ is all the instruction you need to get you started.
Within a few minutes you’ll have ‘got’ it.
Within a few more you’ll be seeing it in the context of your own school
A free, fully-functional trial account is available here.