Naace ICT Impact Awards - A Profile of Penny Patterson

Terry Freedman talks to Penny Patterson, one of this year’s Naace ICT Impact Lifetime Achievement Award winners.

Penny receives her Lifetime Achievement Award from Graham Brown-Martin (left) and Nigel Canin of 2SimplePenny Patterson is on Twitter, but prefers to listen rather than talk, unless she has something of value to add to the conversation. She is active in ICT circles, though doesn’t have her own blog. And if you visit a conference she’s speaking at, you’re likely to chat to her while she serves the tea. She prefers, to use her own words, to be “one of the backroom team”.

Indirect evidence of this was seen in this year’s Naace ICT Impact Awards. When Penny was selected as one of the two people to be given a Lifetime Achievement Award, the look on her face was one of surprise, bordering on shock, and tinged with bewilderment. Typically, she told me that “other people deserve this award far more than I do.”

Penny is the Senior Inspector Computing & ICT Futures at the London Borough of Havering, heading up the Havering ICT Support Service, a role she has held for the past 14 years. But she has been involved in ICT in Havering for much longer: nearly 30 years, in fact. Over that period she has held several roles, having been involved in the Building Schools for the Future programme, the Primary Capital Programme, the London Grid for Learning, Becta’s Sustainability Calculator, the Framework for ICT Support, DCSF Computers in Schools team.... the list goes on.

Perhaps more importantly in some respects is the human factor. This is illustrated by the fact that when computers were not available in every school in Havering, Penny arranged transport so that those pupils who wished to study Computing could do so in one school. For many years now Penny has been very involved with e-safety, a subject about which she is passionate. Indeed, she is also the Child Protection Officer for Havering. As Amanda Jackson, a colleague on Penny’s team in Havering, told me:

“As the use of technology has increased, so has the risk to children and young people online. Penny has pushed this agenda in schools and supporting services. She has worked on Havering, London and national issues around e-safety and safeguarding.” 

So what drives Penny? What leads her colleagues to describe her as passionate, enthusiastic and inspirational?

“For me”, Penny says, “the acid test of anything is: how will it impact children’s learning? How will it make a difference to a [insert applicable group] child on a wet Friday afternoon? I’m not interested in technology for its own sake. In fact, when a new whizzy bit of kit comes in I’ll usually pass it on to someone else to try out and let me know if it’s likely to be of any use in the classroom.”

By all accounts, Penny has achieved a lot in her career, to put it mildly. Doesn’t she crave just a little bit more of the limelight?

“Not at all!”, she says. “I love being able to spot colleagues who have good ideas, and helping them move those ideas forward. I enjoy seeing people develop; I like being the person who set it up. I know a lot of people in lots of different areas of life, not just education, and I can and do partner people up with each other. I’m a good connector!”

Dave Smith, another colleague, bears this out:

“Penny is a true facilitator, supporting innovation and providing guidance for those around her to ensure that new initiatives have real impact.”

Another thing Penny is proud of is her involvement in e-safety, and I have to say, from a personal point of view, that I wish more people shared her way of looking at this whole area. In her view, making children safe is not about banning and blocking, but education and maturity.

Recently, Penny has been highly instrumental in getting the Switched On ICT books off the ground. Andrea Carr, the MD of Rising Stars, the publisher of Switched On ICT, comments that,

“Penny has an infectious enthusiasm and a wisdom that has earned her the genuine respect of her peers. She is committed to giving children the very best learning experiences and always embraces change and challenge with passion and energy. I am proud to have Penny as a colleague and now as a friend.”

This “infectious enthusiasm” certainly comes through when talking to Penny, especially about Switched On ICT:

“This has been fabulous. The training sessions with it have been among the happiest I’ve been involved in. It’s ignited or reignited people’s pleasure in ICT, because it’s enabled them to learn something new.”

As much as she loves seeing individuals develop and flower, so she loves to see schools take ownership of their development, and unpick what works – and what doesn’t – for them, with the help of local support.

But the achievement which makes Penny glow and chuckle is – wait for it – orange projectors. “Not many people know this”, she told me in a faint echo of Michael Caine, “but the reason that schools can buy orange projectors is down to me! I got the police and suppliers together and told them they needed to do something simple but effective to stem the spate of thefts of projectors from schools. ‘Make them a girly pink’, I said. ‘Or orange. Something that few criminals would try to sell in their local!’”

Light-hearted this may be, but it exemplifies a very important aspect of Penny’s approach, which is:

“If you spot something wrong, then do something about it. Come up with a few practical suggestions.”

As John Donne wrote, no man is an island. Penny feels very strongly that much of her success comes down to the people she has been able to work with. Even when a valued colleague has moved on or retired, someone just as good, though in a completely different way, has come along to take their place.

She is also grateful to her employers for allowing her to become involved in projects even though the educational value was not immediately obvious. For example, she was able to champion the trialling of visualisers in schools.

In her view, you have to listen a lot in order to learn a lot. You need, she says, to keep an open mind and be prepared to have your mind changed. “And”, she suggests, “we need to acknowledge the mountains we face rather than make them seem superficially easy. It’s not a matter of achieving quick wins, but of doing something that is sustainable over a period of years.”

Penny has some strong views about what we have not achieved. For example, rather than helping pupils to see how they could use their technology for their own learning, there’s a tendency to take it away from pupils as they walk through the door. That is a missed opportunity in her opinion. She sees it as a reflection of a lack of confidence in the ability to manage classroom behaviour.

Another missed opportunity is cross-curricular ICT. Because ICT is not embedded in the examination system, there is no external incentive for non-ICT teachers to use it in their subjects. This, she points out, is less a problem in primary schools, where classes tend to be taught by one teacher who can relate everything to everything else.

As for the shift towards computing, Penny regrets the fact that this is being promoted by organisations which have no knowledge of child development, or pedagogy. There is a need for all the other aspects of ICT too, she believes, and the almost exclusive focus on computing is merely playing into the hands of those teachers who simply don’t want to teach or use ICT.

It is in this area in particular that she sees Naace as having a vital role to play:

“Naace can make sure that the focus stays on the child and the pedagogy. It can mediate between the other organisations who do not have this expertise. Naace’s views are considered by the Department for Education and others. It’s seen as important.”

Penny also points out that what gives Naace its strength is the wide range of expertise held by its members and Fellows.

Looking at Penny’s many successes, and the esteem in which she is held, must be daunting to any new teacher entering this field. What advice does Penny have for such colleagues?

“Enjoy it. It’s never boring. Never let anyone tell you that something can’t or shouldn’t be done. And remember: as a teacher, it’s you who makes the difference, not the resources you have or the size of your budget. Acknowledge the talents and skills of your pupils, but remember that you have life experience, and that you know how to scaffold learning. And bear in mind that you don’t have to be the sole fount of all knowledge: use your position to partner up your pupils with others who can help them, be it their peers, an online forum or a website.”

Inspiring words indeed, but what about making your mark on a wider canvas? Well, as you’d expect, Penny’s advice is simple:

“Participate. Get involved. Join an online forum, attend a TeachMeet. If you’re too shy to give a talk, offer to help with making the tea! Without taking part you will never see opportunities to develop your own ideas.”

That is a good encapsulation of Penny’s outlook: simple, practical advice, with the emphasis on learning. As she reminds us: if it doesn’t make a difference to a child on a wet Friday afternoon, then why are you even bothering?

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