The Government makes sweeping statements about the need to improve IT learning and provision in schools, but most schools lack the resources and knowledge to meet these objectives. In a bid to overcome this, increasing numbers of schools are signing up to a new service - the Linux-based schoolmaster.net, writes Mike Simons.
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The archaic name belies a dynamic offering, which won a prestigious BETT 2000 educational technology award earlier this year. Schoolmaster.net offers a free Web-based platform to the whole of the school community - staff, students and parents - in a secure, member-only environment.
Schoolmaster.net claims to have 20% of the UK's secondary schools on its server, and significant interest from governments in Europe.
The attraction for hard-pressed educators is clear. Schoolmaster.net provides every member of the school community with an individual Web-based e-mail account, a personal calendar and tools to construct a personal Web site. It also offers a full range of Internet services including:
Bill Westgate, a schoolmaster.net director, emphasises the strict access controls and structured members-only policies.
"Each school provides us with their staff and student details - name, age, gender, status. We use this for the security of the community members. For example, primary students can only interact with other primary students in the chat rooms. It makes the site far safer than allowing all school students unfettered access to the Internet," he says.
Mark Austin, IT adviser at the education support and inspection service of Merthyr Tydfil, Mid Glamorgan, is a fan of the system.
"Some of the Internet service providers (ISPs) we were investigating were looking to sell us e-mail addresses at up to £1 per user per year," he says. "With schoolmaster.net we were getting much more completely free. The service is platform-independent as well as ISP-independent, so our schools do not have to sacrifice flexibility in the rapidly changing world of ICT."
Chris Perkins, deputy headteacher at Etchinghill Primary School in Rugeley, Staffordshire, is another supporter. "I've rarely seen pupils so excited about anything," he says. "For students to be able to e-mail Web pages and other school-based tasks to complete at home and return by e-mail has opened up some fabulous opportunities."
The site is adding users at the rate of 30% a month and its backers hope to get a payback through e-commerce offerings to schools. Whether this is a viable funding model remains to be seen. But the crew behind schoolmaster.net have offered a quick, cheap, effective and secure service which will help local authorities across the UK to meet government targets.