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Intranet: This is county hall calling

Not so long ago, Nottinghamshire County Council announced that the region was trying to move away from its Robin Hood image. The council is proud of its heritage, but it's also keen that Nottinghamshire is seen as a modern, vibrant and forward-looking area. Which is why the county's education department has embarked on a project that could revolutionise the way schools and local education authorities communicate with each other.

It aims to develop an intranet, a private computer network that will link Nottingham's 516 schools to each other and to the authority. An intranet is so called because it uses similar technology to the Internet: easy access, powerful search systems and the ability to send text, pictures, sound and even video along a computer network. But an intranet also offers privacy and it's free to use - schools don't have to pay any call charges when using it.

Nottinghamshire has invested a lot in new technology. Interactive kiosks allowing the public access to local information are dotted around the library network. During the five-year changeover to local management of schools, new hardware was installed at each phase. In January, a programme to equip all schools with a new administrative computer system was completed, which means that each one is now equipped for the next generation of SIMS Windows software.

All schools have a direct link to the council's mainframe computer to gain access to financial data. "A useful feature," says Bill Pointer, the council's education systems manager, "but one day, the concept of adding value to the system came up: how could we make this link even more useful for schools? The problem is that the existing system does not lend itself to electronic communication or, as I prefer to call it, electronic interaction."

A brief tour of the county hall post room gives you some idea of the vast amount of information that flows between a local authority and its schools.Bulging mail sacks, piles of envelopes and out-trays full of circulars fill the room. The system works quite well, but it can be up to a week before the information reaches a school - and even then, there's no guarantee it will reach the right person.

"If I want to contact every school, I haven't the time to write 500 letters, put them in envelopes and stick a stamp on them," says Bill Pointer. "But I could reach everyone quickly and easily with e-mail." He demonstrates the power of IT. The county hall internal telephone directory is a thick book full of staff listings and extension numbers. It's also out of date before it is even published. He calls up a telephone directory on his PC, types the name of the person he wants to contact, and almost immediately gets a list of people with that surname on his screen.

Bill Pointer says that creating an intranet need not be expensive: "You're talking around #163;10,000, which isn't a great deal, but you have to avoid the hidden costs in supporting and maintaining the intranet." This means being able to convert electronic files on a PC into a format that can be accessed on an intranet. The good news is that you don't have to be a computer genius to do this, and nor is it expensive: Bill Pointer is a big fan of a package called Adobe Acrobat, which costs less than #163;150 and performs the file conversion quickly and easily.

The first phase of the Nottinghamshire Intranet will be electronic publication, he says. This means putting a lot of paper information on to the intranet, such as the education newsletter which is published every half term.

The intranet could be used for sending urgent messages to schools, providing news, for educational and private advertising (such as surplus school furniture or a teacher wanting to sell her car). There could also be an electronic helpdesk that deals with, for example, the most common IT problems that schools encounter.

Bill Pointer is excited by the idea of offering an on-line booking system.The Electronic Training Information Systems service runs an active IT training programme in Nottinghamshire. It advertises its courses via a newsletter which goes to all schools, but the courses could also be advertised on the intranet. A teacher could select a course and then, by simply pressing a few buttons on a PC, book a place. The same system could be used for example, for booking a trip at a local educational centre.

The idea of putting information on to an intranet is appealing, but Bill Pointer admits: "It does mean that schools have to make an effort to get the information, rather than waiting for a newsletter to drop on to their desks. " Some even wonder whether replacing paper distribution with an electronic network is merely shifting the effort from the local authority to schools.

"The first point is that if we are to maximise school budgets, we need to reduce central costs. And there are other benefits. It will be easier for schools to find the information that's relevant to them. Both the LEA and schools need to work together in partnership, with both sides taking on some of the responsibility to make this thing work."

Looking further ahead, Pointer says it may be possible to offer schools remote maintenance via the intranet. Instead of a school struggling to install or upgrade its system, experts at county hall could do this for them from the central computer.

"I'd like to see teachers using the intranet for sharing courseware and exchanging ideas. The potential for schools to collaborate with each other is huge," he says.

Bill Pointer says Nottimghamshire's intranet and existing communications channels will co-exist for several years at least: "There won't be a big bang: we need to persuade and convince schools that the system will offer them real benefits. " He adds that Nottingham is keen to start the intranet by October, because that will be six months before local government reorganisation comes into effect.

When this happens, 131 schools will come under the direct control of Nottingham City: "The intranet could be a way of ensuring that all schools in the county remain in touch. Teachers arranging sports fixtures, for example, could find it very useful. I believe that intranets are going to play an important role in the way many schools and LEAs communicate in the future."

Nottingham is holding a seminar to help others interested in setting up an intranet. Contact Bill Pointer by e-mail at: wep1@lea.

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