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.