St Peter’s Junior, Middle and Infant School in St Albans fancies it may be one of the most comprehensively IT-equipped schools in the country
Centerprise is a company with a finger in many pies. It's got a long track record as a supplier to local authorities and government, building PCs under contract for a number of clients. Most notable of these in the UK retail sector is Dixons Stores Group, whose Advent range comes straight from the Centerprise factory but bears a DSG brand.
Most importantly for education purposes however, the company is an approved supplier of complete, integrated solutions under the terms of the National Grid for Learning (NGfL) initiative. As an NGfL-certified Managed Solutions 2000 supplier, it has been found to achieve certain standards both in its tendering and supply process.
In particular, to meet with certification requirements, Managed Services networks must be supplied and installed complete, with sufficient management tools and productivity software to allow users to get up and running immediately. Internet access from all desktops is a requirement, while initial training in basic network management must be included and then followed by ongoing servicing and technical support provision. In short, a Managed Service provider is expected to offer a one-stop-shop for networking services, with clear advice, transparent pricing and set-up facilities that enable even IT novices to proceed with confidence.
Such service is particularly valuable in the education field, especially in the primary sector where even those staff charged with implementing an IT strategy may have little or no computer experience.
To put this in some context, NGfL targets specify that by 2002, all serving teachers must feel confident using computer technology in the classroom to aid their normal lessons and that as many school-leavers as possible should be IT-literate. Even more challenging is the somewhat nebulous government target that, within the same timeframe, the UK should become a centre of excellence for the development of educational software and content, and a world leader in the export of IT-based learning services. To achieve all this, 1999-2000 NGfL funding offers schools an additional £105 million - according to most calculations, this averages out around £3,000 per institution.
Accordingly, a shiny and new Managed Services installation is likely to be beyond the budgetary reach of many schools. Though the experience of St Peter's School in St Albans may be far from typical, it proves that some can manage to upgrade their computer provision - but it also highlights the resource gap that stands in the way of others.
St Peter's isn't an especially large primary school, with seven classes and a nursery unit giving a total of just over 200 pupils. Even at that, it's a tight fit in its current building, with almost every spare corner taken up. Its current IT infrastructure is impressive, but it has taken some time to get to the stage of having a network that can accommodate every pupil in a class simultaneously, and such an installation has led to even more compromises on space.
Over the years, like many state schools, St Peter's computing provision has grown on an
ad hoc basis. It started with the introduction of a number of BBC Micros and Acorn machines, which were placed in classrooms individually. This allowed pupils to have some access to the machines, but created its own problems. Because all the computers were in separate classrooms, it was impossible for more than a few pupils from the same class to have time on the machine simultaneously, even sharing. What's more, it was difficult to integrate computer use into normal teaching, and the limited nature of the installation precluded any sort of networked facilities. Indeed, there wasn't even any sort of networking in place between the headteacher's PC and the one used for administration, with file transfer between machines falling back on the old standby of floppy disks.
The next stage involved the purchase of a number of PCs, helped by vigorous fund-raising by the St Peter's Parent Teacher Association. These nine new PCs offered more pupils the chance to use IT during lessons, as well as reflecting more accurately the sorts of machines and software likely to be found in the home or in the outside world.
What's more, the new machines meant that the school was able to establish a simple peer-to-peer network, simply using the built-in capabilities of Windows networking. With file and print sharing enabled, pupils could share work as well as see it on paper, but there was no way of enforcing any kind of data security policy.
In particular, headmaster Mick Connell points to the inquisitive nature of small children. The school had no way of locking the Windows desktop to ensure it stayed the same between one session and the next; even whole applications had a habit of vanishing and needing to be reinstalled.
An equally important issue was file storage. If children saved their files on one machine, there was no guarantee that they'd be using the same PC next time their class was due for a session on the computers. Worse, there was no guarantee that the files would still be there - those same inquisitive fingers were quite likely to have deleted them. As for saving to floppy disk - have you ever seen the bottom of a primary school pupil's schoolbag?
However, at much the same time as the new PCs were bought, St Peter's entered a pilot project with the local public school. Known as SAILS (St Albans Information Linked Schools), this started from the idea that St Peter's pupils could use the IT facilities at St Albans School and quickly led to the suggestion that certain sixth-form pupils at St Albans School could mentor St Peter's children as part of the service requirement of their Duke of Edinburgh's Award.
Initially, only a couple of St Albans pupils were involved, helping younger St Peter's children with IT related activities. This pilot scheme proved remarkably popular (there are now 32 St Albans pupils involved), with St Albans pupils deriving tremendous satisfaction from it and the St Peter's pupils looking forward to their weekly contact with older students.
The SAILS project might appear to have only tangential relevance to the problems of limited computer facilities at a state primary school, but, in fact, it proved the catalyst that enabled a dramatic improvement in provision.
Because it had proved popular, both St Peter's and St Albans School staff wanted to encourage its growth and get more pupils involved. Fortuitously, this coincided with the announcement of a Government initiative designed to foster improved links between state schools and the independent sector - an initiative backed up with grant funding.
Accordingly, St Peter's applied for a grant to enable the installation of a computer network which would exponentially increase the potential of the SAILS project; it was duly rewarded with some £30,000. In the end, this wasn't enough but the school was able to supplement it with extra funding from other grants and that old stalwart, PTA fundraising.
The plan drawn up by governors and teachers called for a total network of some 30 PCs, complete with server and Internet connection. Given the teachers' acknowledged relative ignorance of IT, it's a good thing that one of the parent governors just happens to be Dave Simmons, managing director of network infrastructure company NBase-Xyplex.
This has an existing good business relationship with Centerprise, which went on to win the competitive tendering process with a hardware and software solution based around the supply of another 23 PCs and associated networking hardware. In an impressive display of symbiosis, much of the networking kit had been supplied to Centerprise by NBase-Xyplex; although not directly involved in the contract, Dave Simmons thus had both a personal and a professional stake in ensuring that the installation went smoothly.
In line with its approved Managed Services supplier status, Centerprise was the point of contact for the whole installation process and supplied everything bar the benching, from cables to the server.
The end result completely dominates the former library space at St Peter's. All the books have been moved into classrooms to make room for bench upon bench of mini-tower-cased PCs and monitors. It's a strange sight, with all the monitors pointing downwards towards their diminutive users, but impressive.
The new network integrates the existing nine PCs, but moves away from the peer-to-peer philosophy that had been used before. Instead, there's a server providing individual file space for each pupil and centralised management of the network, together with a CD server allowing each machine access to selected software and reference CD-ROMs.
Of course, simplicity of management was one of the primary reasons for moving to a client-server network model. Although its core is an NT server, the network management facilities of Windows NT are scarcely user-friendly and Centerprise installed a different front-end.
WinSuite 2000 (from Dacoll) enables a password-protected console that allows a teacher or another staff member to control the desktops seen by pupils. Importantly, they can't change the software install or the look of the desktop, while whenever each pupil logs in with their own username, they see a desktop which is customised for their age and school year. Software includes Microsoft Primary Writer and a whole raft of Dorling Kindersley titles.
Internet access is provided through the LEA. "The Grid" acts as the educational ISP for St Albans schools. With ISDN access offered at no cost to the school itself, and control over site access exercised centrally, it removes another layer of complexity from the school's ambit of responsibility.
According to Janet Cawthorne, IT technician at St Peter's, the whole set-up is "fantastic", especially when compared with the "chaos" that reigned before the new installation. That's praise indeed given that she has to cope with the network on a day-to-day basis, supporting the class teachers and the pupils as they use the PCs; their enthusiasm is palpable.
The SAILS project continues to grow in popularity, with each of the 32 St Albans students now involved mentoring two St Peter's pupils for one afternoon a week. And with one PC per pupil, integrating IT into lessons has become much easier. Every pupil can now write a story or find out key facts, without having to share their time at the keyboard.
But despite its success, such an installation just highlights the problems faced by state education. There's a huge dichotomy between the centralised preaching of the IT gospel and the funding that's actually made available to schools to implement a worthwhile IT strategy. Unless they happen to be LEA pilots or to have attracted special grant aid, they are most unlikely to be able to find money from their budgets to pay for an IT infrastructure.
St Peter's has succeeded, but even it is forced to rely on distance learning packages to help improve the IT knowledge of its teachers. In a slightly Alice in Wonderland situation, funding is made available from the New Opportunities Fund to pay for the training itself, but because this is from the National Lottery, teachers can't be released from their duties to actually attend off-site courses...
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