The art of keeping IT simple

Free advice on choosing computer systems can prevent schools from making expensive mistakes
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The Independent Online

"There are disasters out there," says former head teacher Philippa Lee. "Computers stuck in cupboards and modems that were bought when no one knew what to do with them. The trouble is that mistakes with computers can be very expensive."

Lee, who recently left teaching to join the British Educational Communications and Technology Agency (Becta), is talking about the dilemma faced by many head teachers who have an Information and Communication Technology (ICT) budget - usually the largest single subject budget in their school - but little expert knowledge on how the funds would be best spent.

When Lee, now Becta's head of leadership and ICT, oversaw the opening of the new Maidenbower Middle School in Crawley, West Sussex, four years ago, she was simply handed the money to set up a computer network of 45 machines by her Local Education Authority (LEA) but offered no guidance at all on what to buy. For many head teachers this situation feels like being dropped in dense jungle without as much as a compass to help them get their bearings.

Lee decided on a system after consulting her feeder primaries on the systems they used and the secondaries she would eventually feed pupils into about their hard and software. "I don't know if I picked the best system but that's how I did it," she says. "It probably wasn't the most cost effective."

If she was to be faced with the same challenge today, Lee says she would follow Becta's procurement model, devised last year with schools particularly in mind, and also make use of Becta's recently introduced approved list of computer supply companies.

"The Becta procurement model ensures value for money because it allows you to compare like with like," she says. "It also emphasises that you ought to be buying for function, rather than being blinded by gimmickry. It's the difference between coming up with a list of a school's needs and asking companies to devise solutions to suit those needs and a company coming to a school and saying this is our product and this is what it does."

Computers are now an absolutely vital everyday tool in our primary and secondary schools. Ten years ago a school might have boasted just a few machines, looked after on a voluntary basis by Mr Brown from geography. These days even primary schools have networks of 30-50 PCs. Complex systems require an increasingly professional approach and yet until very recently there was very little advice out there for schools - hence the cock-ups. Becta's Independent Procurement Advisory Service (IPAS) and its list of accredited ICT service suppliers (AISS) is already filling the gap for many individual schools and for LEAs, buying in bulk for groups of local schools.

Crucially, in a huge and complex marketplace, Becta's advice is free and independent. "There are now so many suppliers that most schools don't have the resources or the time to fully evaluate them," says Mark Wallbank of Becta. "Becta has gone into the market place and assessed suppliers and come up with a shortlist."

That AISS accreditation system puts companies to the test on everything from assessing a school's real requirements to maintenance of systems and, of course, value for money. Only one third of the 100 companies that applied for accreditation made the short list. The successful companies are all required to sign up to a code of conduct and the approved suppliers are constantly monitored. "This safeguards schools against picking a cheap system from which the supplier just walks away once it is installed," says Wallbank. "Schools shouldn't choose on price alone."

Wallbank says in the past many schools bought systems on false assumptions. "They don't want to raise the flag on that and be identified as having spent money unwisely but mistakes have been made," he says. "The fact is there is a huge difficulty in keeping up with the pace of the fast-changing IT market. It's daunting for people not familiar with it when they suddenly have to kit out a computer room. What you need is a service that cuts through it all to find out what you need for your particular school. Teachers should be there to teach and not to worry about this apsect of education."

Sheila Marchant, head teacher at Broad Oak Primary School, Didsbury, Manchester agrees that schools urgently need advice about buying and maintaining systems. Her 350-pupil school currently has 39 PCs scattered across a large site. For more than a year she and her staff have been wrestling with a dilemma: should they use their £15,000 annual ICT budget to network their existing computers or buy in a new batch of laptops and have the flexibility, for the first time, of taking a more mobile computer system to their pupils, rather than having to move their pupils to the machines.

Marchant currently has a classroom teacher overseeing Broad Oak's ICT and she also employs a part-time ICT technician. "We can ill afford the technician but we regard ICT as a priority," she says. "The market is completely bewildering and hardware can change so much in a single year. It would have taken my ICT staff so much time if they had had to research the best option themselves. And I would have needed to employ a supply teacher to cover while the research was done."

Instead Marchant turned to IPAS. "They come around and look at what you already have, how much money you have to spend and what you will need in the future so you can build on what you have," she says. "In the end we decided that networking the existing PCs was too expensive - it would have been so much cabling on such a big site - and that the best option for us was a laptop system that comes networked and can be moved around the school."

Marchant has been delighted with the new IPAS service. "This is the largest amount I spent on a single resource," she says. "And so you really don't want to make a mistake."

In addition to IPAS and the approved list of suppliers, Becta's Technical Support Advisory Service (TSAS) is offering schools a maintenance and support model for school computer systems. Paul Stonier, TSAS project manager, emphasises that technical support is not just about fixing a system once it has gone wrong but about preventing problems in the first place. "Technical support should be proactive," he says.

TSAS is advising school technical staff to follow FITS (Framework for ICT Technical Support) which is tailored specifically for primaries and secondaries. It covers best practice for a range of procedures including implementing new hardware and software, efficient fault fixing, software licence management and supplier management. The message is simple: managing the system you have properly cuts technical support costs.

Stonier points to a survey carried out by TSAS which showed many schools were failing in even basic maintenance procedures such as ensuring server back-ups were successfully executed. He points out that a crash could mean the loss of a school's entire data. Stonier agrees that the time is gone when a school's ICT could be left to Mr Brown from geography. "Anyway we don't want teachers to be wasting time when they could be teaching," he says. "Technical support should be left to professionals."