The future of IT in schools
Capita SIMS director Phil Neal examines what the emergence of cloud and mobile technologies means for UK primary schools
Technology is at the heart of 21st century education and nowhere is that more evident than at this week's Bett educational technology show, where hundreds of exhibitors come together to reveal what our future classrooms will look like.
Today's school classroom is very different from any I have previously taught in. Pupils are able to download lesson material from their school's intranet using the device of their choice, post a blog in class or Skype a pupil in Spain to practise their language skills. Teaching too has been transformed through the use of interactive whiteboards and the ability to enter homework marks from a laptop or tablet in just a few taps.
But how are primary schools managing with all these changes to technology?
Traditionally with a small staff and limited budgets, they rarely have a dedicated IT manager on call, so it is becoming a challenge to manage classrooms that are increasingly full of technology.
"Like many other primary schools, we are having to keep abreast of the rapid changes in technology," remarks Paul Pearson, ICT manager at St Mary's RC Primary School. Paul visits many primary schools and says that often staff are having to fulfil their teaching duties and oversee their school's IT, while wishing to keep abreast of every technological evolution.
As a result, one of the biggest shifts we have seen in this market is primary schools opting for cloud services and hosted or managed services. In fact, a search on the Bett website will reveal a total of 90 exhibitors providing these solutions.
St Mary's is one of these schools. And as Paul illustrates below, relatively minor changes to handling routine tasks can have a significant and lasting impact across the school, allowing staff to focus on teaching and not IT.
"I am the ICT manager in our school, a rare species in the primary sector. We're commonplace in secondary schools, where our sole responsibility is to manage all aspects of the IT in use; from equipment storage to upgrading software. Yet primary schools do not have the same staffing budgets and some rely on a willing parent-governor to pick up some of their IT requirements.
"This has been exaggerated by the move to mobile computing. As someone who teaches at other schools, I have seen the dramatic decline of the computer room. The need for many schools to accommodate more pupils means the dedicated IT space is no more. This, combined with the increasing affordability of tablets, has signalled a move towards their use in all aspects of education.
"But this means more to upgrade and maintain and so we thought we would simplify things by moving our management information system into a hosted environment," Paul continues.
"It saves our leadership team having to worry about data backups or upgrades. More importantly, every member of staff can access school data from the location of their choice using almost any device.
"During the day, teachers do not always have the time to update a pupil's record with details of a test completed during class or an incident of bad behaviour in the playground. As we no longer have a server on site, everyone can remotely access our school data. It means staff are not having to play catch up if they need to leave school when the bell goes. Instead, teachers can tick off items on their to-do list at home if they so wish.
"The school has also found that we generally access information far more than we used to. Previously, if we wanted to gather information about a particular child, staff found it difficult to allocate time to find all the relevant details during the school day. Today, if we need to compile a report about an incident or want to show a pupil how far they've improved this term, we can access all the relevant information from a tablet if we want.
"We have to ensure continuous broadband access of course and for that reason, we have invested in three separate broadband lines, but in my view that is a small price to pay. It also meant that during the recent flooding here in Cumbria, it took a week to regain internet access for one of our accounts. In the interim, I was able to move us across to one of our other accounts, ensuring that the disruption was kept to a minimum.
"I think the trend to the cloud and hosted will continue in the primary sector as it will ensure we can get on with what we do best - teaching, and leave the software maintenance to someone else."
Phil Neal is director of Capita SIMS, which will be exhibiting at the Bett show at Excel in London from January 20-23.