where do you want us to reply?
would you prefer we reply here, of email you personally?
...silly board restrictions :P
Although schools may have an onsite technician to themselves, or more likely shared between a cluster of schools – their ability will largely be restricted to general maintenance of equipment. Whilst they may have the ability to reset forgotten passwords (a huge issue in schools), any problem on the network deeper than this, will require a call being placed to the companies helpdesk, logged, and looked at in due course – and there goes a lesson of teaching for the student with the problem.
Whilst the external company will have to meet contractual obligations and an SLA, they won’t be accountable to the school. IT professionals in schools are there, directly accountable to the management, and regardless of contract, will generally do whatever is reasonable to make sure that the ICT facilitates teaching and learning to the highest possible level.
Those supporting BSF play upon the fear of some in schools about what would happen if the IT department suddenly weren’t there, what would happen to the IT then? Leaving aside the huge leap of faith that is required to believe that one-day the whole IT department would be on a bus that crashed over the side of a mountain – or won the lottery and upped and left – this is simply irrational thinking – what would happen if the entire History department disappeared one day? Or the whole Finance department? There would be no-one within the school to do their jobs then either, since the Geography teacher can’t teach History, and the librarian can’t manage the school finances. Whilst schools can bring in supply teachers to continue teaching, though not to the same level as the permanent professionals, so a school can bring in external consultants to continue running the IT systems, again, though not to the same level as the permanent professionals. IT in schools is no different to the History, Finance, or any other department within the school. The scaremongers simply pick upon IT because it can be seen as a foreign concept by some, and they play upon that fear. IT systems are based upon a relatively finite set of systems realistically – either Microsoft, Linux, Mac, or a combination – with various features of those implemented to provide the basis for the network, with scripts etc. employed as necessary. Whilst the exact details and topology of the networks can change in varying ways, a good IT professional, especially one that has experience of similar school systems, should be able to come in and maintain the status quo of that system.
What I find makes ICT BSF interesting is when you consider how the process has been carried out, and the viable alternatives that have been ignored.
Consider the fact that the people best placed within education to understand what the requirements of IT systems are within schools are the IT professionals that work in the sector, then consider that IT professionals within education have been actively blocked from having any influence what-so-ever over the ICT BSF process, over the procurement process and over the requirements. At every step of ICT BSF since inception, the one group of relevant parties that have been consistently ignored and stonewalled, both by the Government representatives of Partnership4Schools, and by the tendering companies, has been those who are best placed to understand the needs, and the issues, the IT professionals already working in the education sector. If the aim of BSF was truly to improve ICT within those schools that are providing a substandard service, then surely the first people who P4S and the tendering companies would want to talk to, to tap into the knowledge of, to bring across to their side to assist in this noble act, would be the IT professionals themselves. Instead, we have been consistently ignored since day one. Even now – as representatives of the winning bidders go into the current round of schools affected to plan what is necessary for the installation of their systems, they actively stonewall any involvement of the schools IT professionals. The only reasonable explanation for wanting to snuff out our involvement is the fact that they’re only to acutely aware that we would ask the tough questions, make the harsh points, point out the glaring omissions and failures in the concept of ICT BSF, show how this is going to have a hugely detrimental affect to the teaching and learning within the majority of schools who have perfectly acceptable IT systems, run by professionals specialised in providing ICT in an educational environment.
Turn your eye then to how other areas within a school are monitored by the government. The government inspectorate of schools, OFSTED, go into schools at regular intervals, experts (although some may debate that fact!) in teaching analyse and monitor the teaching of all departments and the management over a period of time, at which point a report is made – if the school is significantly failing in their responsibilities, steps are taken, such as placing the school in special measures – resulting in the management being replaced by a “super management team” if necessary, or the failing teachers being subject to competency proceedings – those failing elements are removed, and experts are put in their place to bring the failing school up to the acceptable baseline. The school’s Finance Department is itself regularly audited by financial experts to ensure everything is satisfactory and above board. Again, if it’s not, measures are put into place, and competent replacements are put into place. When those schools are performing at, or above, the required standard, they’re left alone to continue doing what they do. In both of these ways, a state of play is established where each facet of the school is at the acceptable baseline, or better – an excellent state of play. However, ICT BSF is akin to OFSTED putting all schools under “special measures”, regardless of if they’re a successful, or a failing, school.
However, implementing such an idea for ICT in schools has consistently been ignored by those making the decisions – IT professionals experienced in the education sector are those best placed to make a judgement on the state of a school’s IT facilities and systems. It would be simple (compared to BSF anyway) to combine a group of school IT Managers into an IT audit team, and send 1 or 2 of them out, either with, or separate to, an OFSTED team, to inspect each schools IT – if a school is found to be below the acceptable baseline for IT systems that has been set by those who have the knowledge, that school’s IT could then be taken into a version of “special measures” – taken over perhaps by the IT department in a local school who have been established as a “centre of excellence” – that school given extra funding and staff to bring the failing school’s IT up to the acceptable baseline or better. That way, a state is established where all schools have baseline IT or better. This would work out considerably cheaper than BSF, and would allow schools to retain their innovation, and for those who wish to be at the forefront of IT, to be way and above the baseline, as they are now.
Alternatively IT within schools could be brought under the control of a consortium of local school IT departments – a cross-school, super IT department being formed, if you will. Again, schools could then continue to have control over their IT systems and innovate as they wish, adapting technology to fit in with the particular needs of their teaching, whilst being safe in the knowledge that that IT is under the control of a large group of educational IT professionals with the knowledge of the unique requirements of education.
The current state of play, however, is simply that IT professionals within education are being consistently ignored by the Government and those involved with and responsible for BSF – effectively stonewalled at every opportunity, silencing us from exposing the huge weaknesses and failings of BSF. Any comment from IT professionals in education is merely met by the claim that we’re merely after protecting our jobs, since IT professionals in education will be eradicated by BSF – again though, this is simply FUD – as IT professionals we have many more job opportunities open to us than merely education, plus a large percentage of us will be taken on by the winning company anyway. The issue is nothing to do with our jobs – it’s about bring to peoples notice the huge threat that hangs over schools ICT, the threat to innovative teaching, something that will leave a lasting, detrimental, effect on education for generations to come – the experience of educational IT professionals lost, innovative teaching with ICT destroyed, well designed IT systems trashed, and replaced with baseline systems – the BSF stakeholders active refusal to engage with schools IT professionals over BSF is simply proof positive of their fear of being exposed for the huge failings in their plans. Why else would the people who are heads and above the most knowledgeable about what they’re allegedly trying to achieve, be muted at every opportunity? Why else would Head Teachers who wish their school also to remind outside of ICT BSF control be faced with the prospect of the Government then withdrawing a significant portion of funding from that school?
Like many ideas from this Government – the initial idea is good – those with failing IT systems do need action taken – however, by not wishing to take the time to develop a suitable solution, by tacking it onto the back of a construction project, by not wishing to sort the good, from the bad, schools, by wishing to lump every school under the same hat with a one-size-fits-all approach – the Government is simply doing a horrendous amount more damage to education, then the problem they’re trying to fix in the process.
Some thoughts on how the BSF initiative may affect ICT support within schools.
Having first started in ICT in 1983 and with the last 8 years spent in ICT support in the education sector I would like to share my experience of the nature of this unique area of expertise and my take on the best course for the future of ICT in schools.
Let’s not pull any punches here; ICT in education is a mess. Years of up and down funding and ever more confusing government initiatives have left most schools reeling. All too frequently, school networks have evolved into grotesque caricatures of their corporate cousins. Time and time again, funding has come in large lumps to be spent in a particular area – now you might think this is a good thing until you realise that there is never any future planning with this. So give a school 200 computers and leased line internet connectivity but don’t, whatever you do, make any provision for the future renewal and replacement of these. Even worse, make sure there is absolutely no thought given to funding for staff to look after it or for maintenance of your ever growing system. Once you have your fledgling network then you are forced to get unqualified and inexperienced staff to oversee it, often having to remove them from their primary teaching duties. This situation continues to spiral out of control, with the blind LEAs leading the blind (but usually well meaning) stand-in ICT staff until the school realises this just doesn’t work and hires an ICT professional in.
Now the fun begins... in my experience, most ICT staff in schools didn’t particularly aim to work in education. They applied for a job which was offered and accepted. The wages may be less than working in the real world, but education has its advantages. So there you are, in charge of a network in some state of confusion, often with very little budget and with end users who generally fit into the category of ‘very demanding’. So what do you do? Quit after a month and run for the nearest (better paid) industry job? No, you stay. You stay because very quickly you realise that the pupils of the school need decent ICT resources. You stay because you soon start to believe in the impact ICT can have in the classroom, and you stay because here you can be fully challenged. The buck stops with you – you are needed and you swiftly develop the skills to juggle dozens of tasks and learn how to be good at everything vaguely ICT.
School ICT has evolved into something really quite unique and valuable. You now have a whole new breed of ICT support personnel who passionately believe in what they are doing. They don’t do it for the money.
Just look at the excellent edugeek.net for evidence of this. In many instances, school networks are beginning to look as good as or even better than their commercial counterparts thanks to the tireless and often unpaid personal efforts of the ICT professionals involved.
Let’s face it – who would you rather have looking after the network in your child’s school... the large corporate businesses who exist purely to make a financial profit... or the people actually working the long, often stressful hours sometimes on ridiculously low wages usually because they care about what they’re doing?
I must add that I don’t have any personal axe to grind here. I work in an independent school and hence am not under any threat from BSF. Nor do I think that BSF is actually any threat to ICT support in schools in the longer term. In the vast majority of cases it just won’t work and so will be quickly dumped (at great cost to the taxpayer) in favour of a return to in-house support. Nevertheless, I feel that I need to stand up and be counted alongside my colleagues in the maintained sector who deserve to be treated with more respect and not have their livelihoods and previous efforts trodden into the dirt for no good reason.