I will start with a fair few paragraphs of waffle and (perhaps!) eventually wrap it up into an idea.
I have been thinking lately about "where we're at" with IT in education at the moment. It occurs to me that, as has happened with many fields (or branches of fields) in the past, there comes a time when it needs to "professionalise" itself. Let me make it clear at this point that I do not mean to say that we "aren't professional" (bisley98, anyone?), merely that we often find it difficult to justify our knowledge, skills, experience, rationale or priorities to our colleagues because there is no clear source of this information for them to corroborate it with. In "the industry", many of these problems are mitigated by, in my view, a more developed understanding of the place of IT within, say, a corporation.
It seems to me that the major ongoing issues might be summarised thus:
* Pay not commensurate with duties;
* Misguided attitudes from other staff (though this may be reciprocal!);
* Profession not clearly defined;
* No clearly-defined entry route into the profession;
* Lack of training.
In fairness to the current situation, 10-15 years ago IT was primarily a curriculum resource used to support and facilitate teaching and learning, with some admin workstations bolted on to use/manage the school MIS and etc. It has since evolved into a central resource - functioning at an organisational level - that enables the functioning of the entire school, including large parts of the curriculum and the majority of the administration work. There are many schools that would largely grind to a halt if the IT system were to go down for a day (or two).
The difficulty is, most people in education don't know this. We know it because it's our job to know it, but how many schools that are lucky enough never to have experienced e.g. a total (though temporary) system failure before, or a catastrophic loss of data, have truly realised how dependent they have become?
Can we blame them for not having caught on yet? In a sense, not really. Because, to be fair, there was a time when a school's IT facilities (or at least all most staff saw of them) were primarily there to support teaching. There was a time when an IT technician could quite fairly be classed as a member of the classroom support staff like a Science, Art or D&T technician and would quite reasonably report to a teacher. Nowadays the system is there to serve pretty much everyone, and additional managerial roles such as Network Manager have been created (which is a plus and we shouldn't forget the recognition we've managed to glean there). The priorities are different; the balance of necessity has changed (security, reliability, central management, structure of responsibilities). So why doesn't everyone know this? Well, teachers (and senior leaders, other support staff, etc.) are busy people too - maybe it's just that nobody told them in those terms.
However, it's not just on the admin side that things have changed - the uptake of IT within the classroom has evolved dramatically as well. I left school a decade or so ago. I went to a reasonably successful and well-off state school. Yes, we had a cute little RM Connect 2.4 network. What we didn't have was projectors in classrooms; we didn't have any interactive whiteboards; we didn't have a computer in every room; we didn't have electronic registration; no Parental Engagement Portals, no internal e-mail, no digital signage... you get the picture!
The technology to support this is changing too. At the school where I work, our previous networks (one for curriculum, one for admin) were powered by three old-school tower servers - Server 2003 and WinXP. Now, it is a fully virtualised environment (VMware) running on HP blade servers - Server 2008 R2 and Win7 - with about a dozen server VMs powering a single-domain network. We run Exchange 2010, SQL 2008 R2, WDS, PARS, Backup Exec, SmoothWall, etc. This is a very far cry from where we were, and a lot of it changed over only a couple of years.
We are responsible for managing, maintaining and developing the technological backbone that keeps a modern school running. We are often the only people in the organisation (up to and including the Head) who have responsibility over (i.e. access to) all of its data. Again, in fairness, this isn't how it was a couple of decades ago, but it's how it is now. What do we find, however? Our pay is either stagnating or falling. A Network Manager in my region, however, is paid, on average, about £1K a year less than an NQT at the start of their career.
Many of us would like to change this, but it's difficult when Single Status has already taken root in many regions, the resources available to senior leaders to evaluate our skills and competencies are limited and there is no clearly-defined career entry or progression route.
Speaking of skills and competencies, IT is a vast field. Software development, database management, networking, system administration, user support, web design... it is possible now to build up an entire career's worth of knowledge and experience in any one of these specialisms. In a school environment, however, you need to know them all. It might only be bits of them all, but schools have certainly been known to encounter problems that would vex a professional with 10 or 20 years' industry experience in their subfield. At the moment, schools hiring IT technicians or Network Managers tend to get a bit of a "mixed bag" as regards their new employee's exact competencies. Furthermore, I don't know of anywhere currently that would advocate or recognise educational IT as an occupation (or sub-branch) in itself. But really, it's a very different breed from working in industry, or in healthcare for that matter. There's a very good post by "ITPROFESSIONAL" on this page that illustrates what I mean here:
Help! I want to kill the Network Manager - ICT - TES
So, the idea then. I would propose an accredited training course, modular and available at various NVQ levels, specifically tailored to what schools actually need from their IT staff. I'd imagine the foundation might consist of something similar to the following:
PC Service and Support Certified Professional
(It used to have a Server 2008 module as an elective, which would've been better than the current range I think. I'm sending my apprentice through this accredition over the course of this year.)
Added to which could be core and elective modules on things like school support work in general (drawing on e.g. the current "Level 2 Award in Support Work in Schools"), to help technical staff gain a better insight into the needs of teachers and pupils; maybe a module on projector repair and maintenance (I have to admit, I myself know absolutely nothing about this so I have to outsource it); perhaps a module on team leadership for Network Managers; and so on.
It is my feeling that the above might generate:
* A clearer understanding of our skills --> leading to increased respect filtering down from recruiting officers (i.e. senior leaders) to other staff;
* The inception of an entry route into this particular line of work --> leading to tomorrow techie's becoming interested in this work at a Y9 Careers Convention perhaps!
* A more concrete feeling of having our own profession with recognised differences from working in industry;
* A source for training that is guaranteed to both benefit us and match the needs of our schools, in a way that is very clear and obvious to senior leaders;
* An initial reason to define a career and pay progression structure --> leading to better pay in the future.
This is the kind of thing that could have been supported by agencies like Becta (abolished), the SSSNB (abolished), BSF (abolished, though that's probably a good thing!) and the TDA (which will die a death on Saturday, to be replaced by an agency that currently seems to show no interest in non-classroom-based support staff). The avenues we could have used to look at achieving something like this are pretty much gone now.
What I'd like to do now is approach a couple of training providers - such as QA or Learning Tree - to see whether they might be interested in participating in a venture that has the potential to define the acknowledgement of a new profession. To make it workable and attractive, there would most likely be a need for:
* Support from lots of people like us;
* Support from a training company;
* Support from the government (or perhaps the BCS);
* Support from schools.
From our point of view, the advantages mentioned above.
From the schools' point of view, they're getting staff trained with the specific skills they need - no more "mixed bags"! (I should add at this point that I'm a pretty mixed bag myself, knowing nothing about projectors for example...)
From the government's point of view, better-performing technological backbones in UK schools to further improve their results.
From the training company's point of view, they would have the monopoly on this, at least initially. I would suggest that they might offer the courses/modules themselves at quite a low fee (to make it affordable for schools), but as the programme became more popular and the standard for IT support work in schools (as there is no other), they would still make a considerable profit from the sheer amount of schools requesting the courses.
Perhaps I'm talking out of my backside though. Perhaps much of what's needed is already around elsewhere, though I've not found it. I would welcome comments from anyone - particularly interested to hear the views of @Dos_Box and @GrumbleDook.