School IT Staff: No Longer Just A Man In A Cupboard

IT today, in many industries, is essential.  If ‘the system’ fails it can have catastrophic consequences resulting in lost earnings, lost work and, for the poor people whose fault it is deemed to be, lost jobs.  Businesses have come to realise the importance of IT and spend significant amounts of money ensuring that they have a reliable and well-managed network staffed by qualified, experienced, people who keep the system running smoothly.

Over the past 15 years IT has grown in use and importance in schools across the country.  Gone are the days of a lone BBC Microcomputer and dot matrix printer sat in one classroom, only used by the brave and bold.  Now schools are awash with desktops, laptops, interactive whiteboards, projectors – just about anything you can think of!  Similarly, gone are the days of the paper register that would be carted back and forth across the school containing those ubiquitous / registration marks – now it is all entered electronically into a management system like SIMS. It’s safe to say that IT has wormed its way into the fabric of schools, not just in teaching and learning, but in the business functions of the school too.

Large enterprise-sized networks, on a shoe-string budget…

The major difference between a business and a school is that schools still do not, or cannot, place the same value and investment into its systems.  This disparity means that they are running large enterprise-size networks often with one or two members of school IT staff to manage them on a shoe-string budget of a few thousand pounds per year.

I have worked in two comprehensive schools as IT technician and Network Manager – in the second school my office was a converted cupboard which I had to share with 13 servers, 8 switches and enough cabling to make looking for a needle in a haystack seem easy. I had one member of staff and no real budget – each time I needed something I had to beg my case to the Deputy Head teacher in the hope that there might be some slack in the budget. The school relied so heavily on IT that if something went wrong (which due to the age of the equipment, it often did!) the place would grind to a halt until it was fixed.

Schools, like businesses, need a solid and reliable IT infrastructure staffed by an appropriate number of people who are qualified and experienced in running such large networks. It is no longer the case that companies like RM can supply simplified network management tools for the part-time hobbyist to use in running the school network – it’s grown way past that now. IT has reached business-critical status and needs to be treated that way.

My experience has also taught me that budgets are the biggest constraint in this respect – with schools squeezing every last penny out of their annual pittance; with the core focus on pens, books, staff and providing a roof over people’s heads it is easy to push the black hole that is IT to the bottom of the priority list.

I would like to see industry helping to fill the gap in this area. Let’s face it, school IT staff in a public sector school are not going to command the same salary as those in the private sector and so that’s where people end up going. This leaves schools to be run by part-timers, often parents who have pupils in the school, or who need the holiday time. Businesses should see schools are places to invest time and money in – after all, the pupils of today will be the employees of tomorrow, and surely they are worth the effort?

School IT Staff: No Longer Just A Man In A Cupboard

Many schools have come to rely on IT very heavily in recent years, both in teaching and in day-to-day running, yet due to various factors internal, and external, they cannot adequately staff or invest in the maintenance of these systems. This leads to huge, complicated and aged networks being run by hobbyists who lack the necessary skills or qualifications to provide the level of support required in such large systems.

The public sector in England and Wales needs to realise this problem and begin to effect a positive change towards this business critical apparatus and start offering positions within schools and local authorities that more closely match the salary of their private sector counterparts in order to try and attract more skilled workers into these public sector jobs. Running a comprehensive school network is no longer just a man in a cupboard.

10 thoughts on “School IT Staff: No Longer Just A Man In A Cupboard

  1. Amykate says:

    Why SHOULD business invest in schools – surely we should be in a world where the government provides what is needed, not the jam but also the bread and butter of school needs? having an adequate IT system – both for admin and teaching – has to be seen as important if not essentail these days?

    There could be ways of encouraging industry to invest other than for the warm and fuzzies – tax breaks, potential employees etc. but someone needs to realise that IT is just as important as desks in a school first.

  2. bennuk says:

    In an ideal world, sure – the government would provide for the IT needs of a school. The truth is that those needs aren’t met by the government for a number of reasons… be it lack of understanding of the issue itself, or a complete lack of funds.

    We don’t live in an ideal world – but we still need to try and get the best deal for young people going through our (at times) broken school systems… and so the more that the business world can do to support schools, the better.

    At BETT, a colleague of mine did a talk on ’10 Money Saving Tips’ for schools – and has since blogged it. It’s well worth a read, as it’s got some great ideas in there for helping to grow the budget you have, and do more for less. Check it out at http://blogs.msdn.com/ukschools.

    Having worked in schools as a teacher, I know exactly how frustrating it is to have a poorly put together (and maintained and supported) IT infrastructure. I also know how much pressure a school network administrator is under compared to those in almost any other IT environment. They need some serious love – there are some brilliant guys out there, and we need more of the same!

    Sadly the issue of IT in schools isn’t limited to the infrastructure… students today are essentially learning 5 to 7 years of Microsoft Office skills – and the curriculim has barely moved forward over the past 15 years. With a new found love for our network admins, we should also be pushing for more understanding amongst policy makers and the educators themselves, too…

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  4. Tony Sheppard says:

    One of the problems is the reticence that some IT support folk have about accountability. In ‘industry’ (such a wide reaching term if I ever heard one) they would be accountable to someone on the board or just below the board (or in a larger chain), but we have all heard the rants about why should IT staff have to be managed or controlled by people who nothing about IT.

    Both sides have got to change and standards have to be developed. There have to be levels of accountability and sharing of developed good practice. I’m not just talking about sharing technical knowledge but the processes and procedures that we all rely on, the policies, the ideas and outcomes … heck, I can shove a dozen buzzwords in here to make it readable to all different groups in education but you get what I mean.

    And not all folk working in schools / education are doing so because they can’t make in the private sector / ‘industry’ … some work there for the love of the job, the lack of stress, a need to give something back. It doesn’t make them any less professional and it doesn’t demean their skills / knowledge / expertise. In fact if you talk to some IT managers and say that someone from teh private sector was going to come in a number would turn their noses up and say ‘What do they know about IT in education … different ball game, mate!’

  5. Terry McDonald says:

    I think it is wrong to sum up school networks as being run by ‘hobbiest’. This is a situation that may have been true 4 or 5 years ago but at both Secondaries I’ve worked for both Heads have totally got how central to the schools infrastructure IT actually is. And that is the key, the Heads and Senior Leadership Team in schools must understand the importance and impact of IT on not only the curriculum but the whole school.

    As far as funding goes this is a different kettle of fish. And the problem I feel is higher up than the school and it’s governors. We’ll soon see if central government understands the role of IT in schools when the ‘Harnessing Technology’ grants cease, will there be a replacement scheme or will the funding burden be placed at the schools feet?

    I find more and more that school network managers, such as myself, are a bread of highly skilled, multi-discplined professionals that are expected to work miracles on a regular basis with little in the way of resources. Where else but in a school can you work with – Active Directory, Virtualisation, SAN’s, SQL, HTML, Programming, Wi-Fi, etc, etc, etc. In industry you’d normally speciallise in just one of these areas.

    The question of why business should (consider) funding schools is simple. It’s looking increasingly unlikely that government can. A tory government focusing on spending cuts and privitisation would hit us hard. From the businesses point of view school funding should be seen as an investment in the businesses future. These schools are teaching your future employees. If your employees are being taught at a level of ‘Windows 2000 and Office 97’ would you not be worrid?

  6. Bossman says:

    Bennuk:
    Your right about the lack of finance for schools and their IT business infrastructure, what you haven’t mentioned is BSF and how all these wonderful IT people within the schools are going to be made to take another job within the LA IT infrastructure or redundancy, all because of government intervention (BSF) forcing schools into a third party IT system which so far has cost LAs and the new built schools dearly even after all the hype of government spin.

    Just as a good number of schools are getting it right and employing people with the necessary skill-sets along comes the BSF wagon and turns it on its head. The LAs are stating that you cannot have a new build or even refurbishment without the IT package and so far most outsourced IT systems are failing because they are based around a business model which for a school is suicide.

    Most BSF IT managed systems are based around virtualisation, Citrix XEN apps with virtual desktops run on thin clients over WAN internet. This is great for office workers who come in on a morning and while they are waiting for their workstation to log in go and make a cup of tea or coffee, for students who are having to login on the hour every hour of the school day this is very frustrating.

    In the school where I manage the whole school communications system we have had just 7 hours of downtime in 8 years and 4 of those hours were because of an outsourced server not being configured properly the rest have been for ISP failures and just 1 and a half hours due to actual managed downtime. We have less than a 5 minute response time and the staff are always kept up to date with new technology so they themselves can make the required decision as to what they would want to use instead of having it forced upon them. This is done with just 1 senior technician and a part time technician and myself.

    Data centers are fine for business but for schools I fear the death knell tolls for most of them by way of IT as they are constrained into a one shoe fits all system where innovation will be a thing of the past unless the school can fund the enormous extras other than the basic service level agreement which could cost as much as £250,000 per annum and deliver a less than pleasing service for the teachers which a properly managed team within the school could easily manage for nearly half as much and give a far better service.

    BSF ties schools into SLAs which holds them to a certain level of service which in most cases is just a basic level agreement as those people who draw up the agreement for the school are usually the headteachers who really are inadequately prepared and usually just take the advice of the contracted managed service provider, this leaves the school with a poor level of service to which they are tied in for a minimum of 5 years. The problem then is if the service turns out to be of an inferior quality how are the schools going to start from scratch again when it would probably take in the region of 2 to 3 million to build another network.

    I could go on about this but what is the point, no one stands a chance of changing things because as ever the government and the LAs have been convinced that this is the way forward and so the spin keeps rolling on.

    Good luck to all those very very hard working IT professionals (yes I said professionals) who are destined to be pushed out of the very job they love and into something they have to take to put food on the table and all for the sake of privatisation of the educational system.

  7. Russell Dyas says:

    This is where the major problem occurs the differences between how school management view ICT. If you have got an SLT that sees the importance of ICT then the wages can be commanded. But on the other hand if you have a school that feels ICT is an add-on then you do end up with issues you have described.

    Russ

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