Government caned for foisting unsuitable IT systems on schools

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The Independent Online

The Department for Education and Skills is being accused of pushing unsuitable IT systems on to schools, wasting tens of millions of pounds.

Education Secretary Ruth Kelly's "Learning Platforms" programme aims to give every school a "virtual learning space" by 2008. The DfES has said it is allocating £50m this school year for the platforms - systems that allow teachers and students to download learning materials in the classroom and at home.

However, both teachers and IT experts have criticised the emphasis placed by the DfES on "hosted" solutions. These have the servers containing all the teaching materials housed outside the schools. They are either with the provider or the local education authority (LEA), rather than letting the school have a dedicated server. Most systems on offer, from the likes of UniServity, Net Media and Granada Learning, are hosted.

Brine Leas school in Nantwich, Cheshire, recently stopped using the UniServity system, replacing it with an in-school solution called Frog-Teacher from a Yorkshire company, FrogTrade.

"We had a problem maintaining the link," said David Cole of Brine Leas. "It was an issue of demands on our bandwidth."

The school found that as 20 or 30 students downloaded teaching materials at the same time, the school was soon off the limits of its broadband links. Brine Leas discovered, after paying for the server, that the running costs of FrogTeacher were a quarter of the hosted alternative.

Other schools have pointed to similar problems. At Heaton Manor, Newcastle upon Tyne, a 2,000-strong comprehensive recently redeveloped under the Private Finance Initiative, there is a massive 100MB broadband line. Yet Dominic Volpe, assistant head, says the school aims to have between 10 and 20 per cent of students accessing e-portfolios simultaneously. "To get teachers and students to use this, it needs to be reliable, and I don't want to be relying on a link from the LEA. If it only goes down for an hour, people will stop using it."

Most schools are linked to broadband though local "learning grids", which tend to use a hub-and-spoke system. In Doncaster, South Yorkshire, there was recently a fire at a primary school, which was a broadband hub. This left six schools, including the nearby 1,300-pupil Hatfield Visual Arts College, without broadband for a week. Hatfield, however, installed FrogTeacher a year ago, replacing a system from education IT specialists RM. "No external server is going to be as quick or reliable as they would be if they were in the school," said Dirk Pittard, Hatfield's director of e-learning.

One problem with externally hosted systems is reconfiguring the teaching materials so they fit the school's curriculum. Another is combining the system with that of the school's administration. Sending information about pupils, such as attendance and results, to an external server could breach data protection rules.

Roger Brodie, an independent consultant who is on the board of education IT body Naace, said externally hosted solutions can be good for schools where there isn't a lot of IT use or knowledge.

But he pointed out that secondary schools are increasingly using video for education, and downloading that over broadband links can lead to problems.

The DfES denies it is pushing schools to use hosted systems.

"The Learning Platforms booklet does not state that schools should go for externally hosted systems," said a spokeswoman. "The key requirements for platforms that schools purchase are that they should be available for use during and outside school hours and accessible from any location - eg, the home ... that they meet the agreed functional specification set out as part of ...framework procurement."

However, a February DfES tender document states: "The solutions offered must be capable of being hosted and managed remotely." At a recent meeting with schools in the Northern Grid for Learning, the DfES official in charge said externally hosted systems were the preferred option.