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Data loss is disky business

News | Published in TES Newspaper on 7 May, 2010 | By: Mike Kent

A friend recently emailed me an amusing audio clip of a customer ringing a computer repair department. He'd got his PC back and all his files had been wiped. He starts very politely, but ends up screaming an array of obscenities down the phone in utter frustration.

But last Thursday, I understood exactly how he felt.

"Something's wrong with my computer," said Secretary Sandra. I sensed an edge in her voice. All our important pupil data is held on her machine, and she'd just updated everything for the annual census. "Don't worry," I said. "I'm sure we can sort it."

Like a naughty child refusing to move, her screen sat displaying a message that a system file was corrupted and nothing could be loaded. So there. Ha ha. What are you going to do about that, Mister?

I wasn't too worried. I'd backed everything up on a portable drive, and we had a recovery disk to sort the corruption out without disturbing the data files. I loaded the disk and left it churning away while I did something else. When I returned, it said everything had been successful and I could now re-boot. I did. And up came the same message as before.

Now I began to worry, too. Meantime, the rich pageantry of primary school life carried on around us. Ahmed from the reception class had been sent up with diahorrea, Charlie had lost his coat, Ben was soaking because Aaron had sprayed him with drinking fountain water. There was only one thing for it: stop worrying and send for the cavalry.

In our case, the cavalry takes the form of Italian Angelo, who can dissect a computer like a fishmonger filleting a kipper. He sensed the urgency in my voice and arrived within the hour. "Ah," he cried, "Issa seemple problim. I just replace-a the bad file." Using diagnostics disks from his kit, he transferred some files and booted up again. The same message returned and now Angelo looked concerned. "Interesting," he said, in the way computer geeks do when they're baffled. "Issa not a seemple problim after all."

He explained that he'd need to disembowel the machine, remove the hard drive and try to recover the school data in his workshop. If it was still on there, of course. Sandra blanched visibly. I wanted to cry. What if we had to type everything in again? It would take forever.

And then I remembered the portable back-up drive. We plugged it into the computer in my room and checked the data was all there. It was. But the program running it wouldn't work. Angelo tapped away, but nothing. "Donna worry," he said. "I come back some time maybe next week. We feex eventually." I held his hand gently, and explained that if he couldn't feex it by tomorrow, I would be committing hara-kiri. A teacher popped her head round the door to ask something, but withdrew when she saw my face.

Although my computer skills don't equal Angelo's, I took the portable drive home and sat up half the night trying to interpret messages saying that file lib.dib.exe.diddly/doo needed moving to C:/exe.lollipop.beta.bin. Eventually, success as things began to piece together. In the morning, elated, I plugged the portable drive into a notebook computer to reassure Sandra that we hadn't lost anything. Before my eyes, the notebook died, emitting a burning smell.

Then, just as I'd decided now was an ideal time to run screaming into the hills, Angelo reappeared, smiling. He'd retrieved the data, and installed it on a newer computer he'd found in his workshop, which Sandra could have for nothing if she wanted.

I'm rarely over-emotional, but frankly, I was tempted to kiss him.

Mike Kent is headteacher at Comber Grove Primary in Camberwell, south London. Email

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