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How our Manchester team made a difference in 2019

Posted by: , Posted on: - Categories: Careers, culture, National retraining scheme, Service design, User-centred design

A photo of a big metal bee structure in our Manchester office.

The end of the year is a good opportunity to draw breath and look back at what we’ve achieved so far.

This has been a big year for the Manchester office. We’ve delivered some great projects and we’ve really expanded our team.

This office is becoming a really important centre of expertise in digital delivery and transformation. What we do here, just round the corner from Piccadilly Station, and with teams across the country, is a crucial part of our aspiration to provide a world class education for every child.

In this post me and my team talk about some of our highlights.

Claim additional payments for teaching

We’ve been working on two different services focused on making payments directly to teachers. This is a first for the department. We hope it will make it easier to hire teachers and encourage them to stay in post.

One service repays the teacher's student loan payments they made in the previous financial year. The second service, ‘Claim additional payments for teaching maths and physics’, gives a £2,000 payment to teachers who teach those subjects.

We’ll launch this next year, and we'll iterate it to make it easier for DfE to check claims and get as many of our expected 4,500 users paid through the service.

We’re immensely proud of this work. It means we can try out new policy areas around incentives for specific groups of users as well as creating a whole new relationship with teachers.

Get school experience

This ‘Get school experience’ service introduces prospective candidates to teaching, through our own DfE-run system.

We've created a customer relationship management system which allows us to own the conversation with prospective teaching candidates, something we haven’t been in control of before. This is an exciting new development and now means we:

  • have a more useful and direct relationship with candidates
  • can learn from the data and use that insight to be more responsive to our users' needs
  • can get better at recruitment and teacher retention

This will help us to achieve one of the department’s aims which is to provide world class education and excellent teachers.

Lesson planning and materials

We know one of the things that discourages teachers from staying in the profession is the amount of time they have to spend planning lessons. We’re tackling that.

Our 'Curriculum materials' product is designed to make life easier for teachers by improving the quality of their teaching, as well as enabling us to collect data about the success, or otherwise, of different lessons.

In January, we’ll be moving into the next stage of developing this product and we’ll keep you posted on our progress.

Online training for adults

The National Retraining Scheme (NRS) will help prepare adults for future changes to the economy, including those brought about by automation. The NRS will help people retrain into better jobs.

One product we're developing in our Manchester office is the NRS' proposed online training product. It aims to provide adults with flexible and valuable online learning which they can fit around their busy lives and responsibilities.

We started the alpha phase in late November with a team of experts in digital development and learning design, some of whom are from the Open University and Century Tech.

So far in this alpha we've:

  • conducted user research
  • developed an initial prototype for further testing
  • gained significant insight on learning design, tutor support models, and learning platform design

Service Delivery Division

The Service delivery division has been set up in Manchester and Sheffield to transform how we deliver services to academies and free schools.

Nearly half the schools in the country are now academies and our role in the DfE is to ensure school leaders have everything they need to lead a school to success.

This could include the process of setting up an academy or opening a free school all the way to changing the number of pupils that go to a school.

These processes are often complex because there's lots of people involved at different stages as well as associated legal work. The team often describe some of these processes as more complicated than buying a house.

The Service delivery division is responsible for ensuring we make it easy for a school leader to manage and run their school, by building user-centred and data-driven services.

In January, our first service - 'Apply to convert to an academy' - will go into its next stage of development called public beta.

Building our user research capacity

A photo of our feature wall in our Manchester office titled 'Making the Manchester difference'. There are four short paragraphs about how Manchester has always innovated and collaborated and highlighting the successes of Manchester such as Alan Turing and Emmeline Pankhurst.

Magda Bober, one of our user researchers, is developing the user research community in DfE Manchester. She came from the private sector, with a background working in academia and educational research. ‘To grow our research community here in Manchester, we have learning lunches. We work in separate teams but come together regularly to share learnings".

Magda describes how this year has been fast-paced with rapid cycles of user research, and project delivery. "It’s been a very steep learning curve with very tight project timelines. It’s been intense and I’ve learnt a lot. I would recommend working here to anyone. But it is challenging and it's not an easy ride".

For her, it’s important that the department can attract a diverse mix of talents, of which there's plenty in and around Manchester. "I think the civil service needs people from the outside and it needs a mix of new ideas and new ways of doing things".

Growing the team, building a culture

Manchester has long been an important base for policy and operations, but until this year, it has not had a digital team. When I joined the team in April, there were just four of us. We were part of an early group who were setting up digital capability.

Since then we’ve built communities of practice and recruited user researchers and product managers to permanent civil servant roles, bringing our numbers up to 25.

Building our culture has been a priority, as it has been for the whole of DfE Transformation and Digital.

We’ve also transformed our physical space. People are working on agile walls and using the collaboration spaces, we have ‘show the thing’ sessions every week where teams present their work. The whole atmosphere has changed.

Working closely with operations and policy people

As well as growing our digital expertise, we’ve been able to make the most of the policy and operational teams who are also based in the same building.

We've focussed on working with them, in line with our aspirations to bridge the gap between policy and delivery by putting people at the heart of policymaking. This will help transform the department into being service-led.

It seems to be working. We’re gaining a reputation as a place where people are learning about digital. And our location helps. We’re lucky to be able to tap into the rich public and private sector expertise in the area. Organisations like the Department for Work and Pensions, HMRC, Department for Culture Media and Sport as well as BBC and Jaguar are based nearby. But we’re also attracting people from London and the south of England who want to come and live and work here.

Next year, we'll be hiring

A photograph of our Manchester office at dusk, overlooking the river.

In 2020 we’ll be recruiting for another set of important roles, including Head of product, Head of content design and Head of design.

Like our bases in Coventry, Sheffield, and Birmingham, the Manchester office is an important part of something our department takes seriously, which is to make sure our policy and delivery teams are well distributed around the country. And to also develop centres of excellence where the culture of transformation and delivery becomes the norm. We’re really proud of this work - and it’s not just about London.

Thanks to everyone in the team for their work this year and to all the people who've supported them.

Follow Jack Collier and DfE Digital on Twitter.

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