As the years rolled on and the NGfL project gained momentum and the newly arrived network managers began to exert better control over the planning, expansion and budgeting for these annual network upgrades. With the still high costs of ‘tier one’ vendors; no one could afford to buy HP or Dell, let alone justify buying more from Viglen or RM the smaller local companies began to get a slice of the pie in the supply of desktop computers and servers, often with mixed results. Some were affordable high quality units, others were not and the (usually) cheap components ensured high failure rates. It kept life for all of us old hands both interesting and frustrating in equal measure.
Then in 2003 the Building Schools for the Future (BSF) program was announced. The ambitious scheme to rebuild almost all UK high schools was both well received and criticised in equal measure, praised by politicians of all parties for its ambition to rebuild many older schools which were in a poor state of repair, but equally made many sceptical of just how this could be afforded.
In 2010 the project was officially scrapped by the new incoming UK government as unaffordable it still left some projects underway where contracts had reached ‘financial close’ i.e. all the agreements had been signed and legally work could not be cancelled. And it was to one of these schools, the Heritage High School in Chesterfield, that EduGeek found itself as a guest of Dell Computers (UK), the IT provider for not just Heritage but a cluster of local high schools including The Bolsover School and Springwell Community College, all built under BSF, to see what they had done in partnership with them and Derbyshire County Council to deliver cutting edge IT equipment, infrastructure and facilities to staff and pupils.
Laying out the IdeasThe schools had started to liaise with Dell as early as 2008 and once the deal for the new build had been reached in 2009 they began to install and implement the infrastructure with a focus on 3 particular areas as Tim Beeby from Dell explained.
- Access to IT – IT should be available everywhere possible, not just in selected suites and classrooms.
- Quantity of IT – There should be enough computers available that pupils should be able to access IT wherever and whenever they need it.
- Teaching of IT – IT should be integrated into as many lessons as possible and through this method, IT is taught throughout the curriculum, not just via a specialist subject.
Judy Matkin, the BSF project manager for Derbyshire county council said that they wanted to ensure the new build networks had no legacy baggage from the older school networks they replaced and so they ensured that their priorities and the essential features of this new infrastructure were:
- Backbone - All networks were kitted out from scratch with Juniper switches working to the latest standards.
- Wireless - Wireless is hugely important and each school has complete coverage both inside the buildings and in selected outside areas via a managed Aruba wireless network.
- Security and integrated systems - All school systems are integrated. From security cameras, door control, printing, library management and canteen purchasing it’s all run using the same AD authentication.
- Single sign on - All staff and pupils can log onto any system in any school in this BSF cluster (some pupils move between sites for specialist courses) and access any resource with just a single identity, this includes web based services such as the individual schools’ VLEs and the use of proximity cards for room and resource access.
- Unified communications - All the schools have a UC solution for collaboration between schools and communication with the ‘outside world’.
- Any time, anywhere learning - As was mentioned by one of the heads present, this part of Derbyshire gets hit hard by the snow and ice in winter and it is important that even though children cannot get into schools, they can still access the curriculum online via their VLE’s.
With an allocated amount of £1450 per pupil to be spent on IT for each build, including staff training and an amount of this ‘top-sliced’ for specialist projects within each school, such as green screens in Heritage and Macs in Springwell College for example, the schools have gone a long way to ensure that things were done right the first time and not in need of ‘tweaking’ later.
The ImplementationTim Beeby also went on to explain that it took 84 weeks of discussion to make sure the schools’ exact needs were met for the period of the 10 year contract as existing IT support staff were TUPED (employment contacts transferred) across to Dell, teacher training on new systems was custom provided and equipment suitable for the task in hand was purchased - such as ruggedized netbooks and tablets for outdoor and school trip use and classrooms fitted with dual use whiteboards and projectors that use the eBeam system so they can be used both interactively and as traditional whiteboards with marker pens.
And it seems to work as Gordon Inglis, the headmaster of The Bolsover School which opened its doors in November 2010, told us they now have whiteboards and projectors in the PE department changing room to assists in discussing and explaining tactics before games which saves time on the pitch and the sports hall even has a screen which has helped them hold a real-time rowing race against a partner school in Texas.
From our point of view the whole setup at the Heritage school came as a pleasant surprise as a quick tour by headmaster Don Spencer showed us. The new BSF funded buildings are not architectural masterpieces with huge glass domes or flowing facades, but well thought out 2 story blocks that give a spacious and airy feel to the site and provide a bright learning environment to the school’s 950 pupils. The classrooms even have CO2 detectors in them to automatically adjust the flow of fresh air to ensure pupils can keep attentive in lessons.
Each block is based around an open learning space on the ground floor - each one with tables and chairs for pupils to use as an independent study area. The introduction of individual toilet cubicles with sinks in the corridor, overlooked by CCTV, is also great way to prevent vandalism, bullying and absenteeism from lessons.
And does all of this technology work at a the sharp end where it matters? Well the pupils we spoke to tell us it does. In one classroom we visited pupils were busy taking notes on laptops, shared one between two, and they seemed very happy with the solution being offered to them telling us they liked using the laptops but didn’t get to use them as much as they would prefer, which is probably a good indicator of not just how integral IT has become to lessons, but as to a shift in how pupils think they should be doing schoolwork. The pupils we observed in several classes have also come up with an ingenious method of note taking. As the pupils email is provided via Outlook Web Access they take notes via email. Using this method they can easily share them with their classroom partner as soon as they finish the lesson. They tell us it is faster and easier than uploading it to their user areas, and (I don’t know if they realise this) has the added bonus of being searchable!
The SolutionSo, down to the nitty-gritty… how did Dell provide the solution?
Talking with Tim Beeby and Mike Rendall (Senior Consultant at Dell Services), Dell were keen to provide a solution built around Microsoft technologies and limiting the use of third-party tools or proprietry add-ons as much as possible. At the same time though, Dell were committed to ensure that the Microsoft systems had integration with all the other chosen systems – be they access control, printing, library management, etc.
There is essentially three parts to solution – Dell-hosted services, school-hosted services and endpoint devices. Each part is described in a little more detail below.
Dell-hosted ServicesIn order to provide shared services between the schools, a number of services are hosted by Dell in a data centre. All these services rely heavily on Active directory (a single domain) and Forefront Identity Manager which uses data extracted from the management information systems (MIS) to poupulate the authentication data across all the services. Exchange 2010 and Lync Server 2010 are also hosted by Dell.
In addition to the authentication and unified communications servers, a number of System Center servers are deployed in the datacentre. These include System Center Configuration Manager (SCCM) to manage client devices, System Center Operations Manager (SCOM) to monitor the solution and System Center Virtual Machine Manager (VMM) to manage the virtualised workloads.
Dell also provides backup facilities using System Center Data Protection Manager (DPM) for disk-disk-tape backup and archiving. An option was provided to schools to purchase a DPM server to provide disk backup which would then essentially ‘forward’ the backup to the data centre (disk-disk-tape).
Remote access solutions (VPN for staff and Remote Desktop Services for students) are also provided by the datacentre. Access to these is via Forefront Unified Access Gateway (UAG) and Active Directory authentication.
School-hosted ServicesAlthough the majority of services are managed from the datacentre, several servers are also deployed locally at each school. These services include the following:
- 2-node Hyper-V cluster connected to iSCSI storage
- Virtual servers for Domain Controller, DHCP, DNS, file servers and SQL Server
- MIS server
- Lync Server with media gateway to connect to the local telephone exchange via ISDN30e
- SCCM server as a downstream node of the datacentre SCCM server
- Network Access Protection (NAP) server to prevent unauthorised devices being used on the network
The wired network infrastructure comprises of Juniper EX4200 and EX2200 switches with 2x 1Gbps links connecting each cabinet to the core. VLANS are then used to separate the traffic into logical networks.
The wireless network is provided by Aruba and comprises of 2 controllers (1 redundant for fault tolerance) and thin access points providing 802.11n coverage throught the inside of the buildings. At Heritage High School, they had additionally chosen to provide WiFi coverage in a covered courtyard to cater for outdoor lessons.
Endpoint DevicesAs endpoint devices, Dell provided a range of different hardware tailored towards the kind of usage and situations devices in schools encounter. These included desktops, workstations, laptops and netbooks as well as ruggedized netbooks and tablet computers for outdoor and school trip use.
Every teacher had a laptop which they could connect to the classroom projectors, boards and voting systems. This was also their main device for accessing the Lync communications system. Also notable was the inclusion of a docking station on each teacher’s desk enabling the teacher to have any laptop instantly connected to the projector to show off pupils work to the entire class. This is very handy for when pupils are working on something complex and needed to display their working.
The pupils have access to laptops and netbooks that are stored in network connected charging trolleys on each floor. The netbook charging solution was particularly clever with units sliding into a dock and clicking into place. Whichever solution, they also allowed for overnight patching and obviously included protection against over-charging.
ConclusionOur day at Heritage High School was certainly a very encouraging eye opener. Largely in part to the time and effort put in by the schools, Dell and Derbyshire County Council’s BSF team whose vision and long terms goals have played the deciding factor in the implementation and roll out of solutions and services that will see these schools having the kind of infrastructure, equipment levels and support many schools can only dream of.
These factors will ensure that in ten years’ time the school we visited will still be offering IT at the level many would expect of up to date high-tech private sector companies. With BSF now cancelled it does leave us wondering whether this kind of network could have become common place in UK schools rather than what may be considered a strange historical anomaly in the evolution of UK schools. It would also be a great shame if the kind of technologies offered in The Heritage High School, Bolsover School and Springwell Community College become the exception rather than the norm. Only time and the future planning and vision of individual schools will tell. All of us now live in an interconnected world, and our schools should reflect this.