Education: Run the college efficiently and the profits rise

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Business is booming at Blackpool Sixth Form College. Blixman Ltd, the company set up by the college to market its home-grown computer software, has made enough profit to pay for the building of a large library extension.

Yet Cosmex and Hyperview, the two systems its has so far sold to eight other colleges, were originally developed without any thought to commercial potential.

On a wall near the college's inquiries office is a computer display screen using Hyperview, its general notice system. One message melts and folds into another, backed by quality graphics templates. 'Egg mayonnaise, fishburger, treacle tart' was the lunch menu, and never has an egg looked better than the one in the picture, even on a plate.

Christopher Fulford, the principal, is convinced it has made the college more efficient. 'The form tutors who remembered to tell the students who were listening used to be our message system,' he admits. Now a secretary taps a message into her keyboard and there is no rushing around looking for drawing pins or remembering to put a notice on every board.

But Hyperview has not revolutionised tutor time as much as Cosmex, the system that handles registration and the passing of messages to individual students. Students 'swipe' their plastic cards at one of nine red boxes placed around the site. Their time of arrival is recorded, and a series of bleeps alerts the students to read any individual messages on the display panel.

It has allowed the standard 20- minute tutor group gathering every morning to be abandoned. Jeffrey Holland, the deputy principal, says the college has saved the equivalent of three full-time teachers by allowing modern technology to handle the routines of registration and communication. He also feels that Cosmex has added to the adult ethos of the college. 'By giving the students responsibility for their attendance you're treating them in a kinder way. And it's pushed attendance up to 94 per cent.'

Mr Holland is one of four unpaid directors of Blixman. The company was formed quickly on the advice of auditors when it became apparent that other colleges were prepared to pay to install Cosmex. And when they came to look at Cosmex, they also noticed Hyperview.

'What surprises visitors is that it's a professional outfit. I think they expect to come and see something cobbled together, Heath-Robinson affair that's hit and miss. It's quite a shock to them to see it's been developed in a college.' Now new packages to deal with the library and timetable administration are being tested.

Blixman now employs its own marketing manager and systems engineer. It commissions professional writers to write the manuals, and asks companies such as ICL to prepare training courses.

The cheapest installation so far has cost pounds 15,000. The most expensive, in a large college with four sites, cost pounds 64,000. Some colleges have requested additional features. Leeds College of Art and Design wanted print-outs of pupil attendance according to teaching group so it could monitor the success of particular courses.

'We're not a charity, but we would put something in under the installation at no extra cost if we could see its uses at other institutions,' explains Mr Holland. 'We'd get our money back in due course as we'd be able to offer it as a feature of the system.'

Most of the students at Blackpool sitting under a Hyperview screen in the canteen thought the system was better than sitting through registration, although a few had doubts.

'If you're one minute late, you're late for the day. It could get on your record,' worried one student. 'You don't get away with much,' said another. 'They try to make you feel like you've got more independence, but you haven't really.'

(Photograph omitted)