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Management a la modem

Gerald Haigh explores the pros and cons of communications for school management

I remember the first modem I ever saw. I was a middle school head, and our neighbours in the comprehensive across the field persuaded us to get a modem so that they could talk to us. The fact that if I craned my neck a bit I could almost read the notice board in their entrance hall was irrelevant. The modem never seemed to work, and the enthusiastic teachers behind it all were always ringing each other up to explain what they should be reading on-screen.

Things have moved on, of course, and the concept we often spoke about then, of "computers talking to each other" has become reality, and teachers are busy exploring whether, and how, the Internet can help with learning.

In the school office, however, things are less clear. The management information system collects and handles a mass of pupil, staff and financial information. To what extent, though, does it need to talk to the world outside?

The most obviously useful link for a local authority school is with the finance department in the education office. Because financial tasks are split between school and authority, there has to be a frequent exchange of information. Very many schools, for example, still receive a paper printout from the local authority mainframe each month containing a long list of transactions, every one of which has to be checked against the school's own records.

This laborious paper exercise is usually unnecessary as a good school finance package such as SIMS or Key Solutions is perfectly capable of doing the comparisons automatically. It will flag up only the non-matching items - the book that has been invoiced and apparently not ordered or the supply teacher whose pay claim has been miscoded.

What usually stands in the way is the need to persuade the authority's mainframe computer to produce its information in the right way. Where this has been done - in Essex, for example - the saving in time in schools is very significant. For this to happen, the link between the school computer and the authority does not, of course, have to be electronic. A floppy disc in the post does perfectly well, as Essex has shown.

The electronic link, though, apart from being quicker and less susceptible to loss and damage, is a lot cheaper for the authority. According to Chris Holder, technical manager of SIMS Support in Essex, "it costs less than one call unit per school. The cost of telephone charges for 12 months is less than the cost of postage was for one month".

Essex SIMS Support uses the same system to provide a link between schools and the examination boards. (Most schools use one of the two main commercial carriers, PMS Dialnet or BT.) The examination boards pioneered electronic document interchange in education. The Midlands Examination Board was up and running by 1988, both receiving entries from schools and transferring results back.

Chris Lyon, who chairs the EDI co-ordination group at MEG, said: "It saves us a lot of keying and also we tend to get better quality data: there's no misinterpretation of miles of Tippexed paper."

Now, in the West Midlands Office of MEG, 93 per cent of entries are received electronically from schools and colleges (a small proportion of this is on disk, but most is down the phone line). This board also makes extensive use of the link for exchanging electronic mail (e-mail) with schools, a great help, said Chris Lyon, to teachers who find it difficult to make telephone calls during the working day.

This also makes it possible to give an official response at very short notice in a way that would not be acceptable by telephone. For example, said Chris Lyon, "one school had a child turn up for an exam who had mistakenly not been entered. The person in charge sent a message across to us and by the time the exam was started they had his authorisation that he could be accepted as a candidate".

Schools and authorities are also exploring e-mail links. If one is already in place for financial data, for example, it makes sense to exploit it for other messages. In a number of cases, though, these systems have been under-used, usually because they have been too unwieldy for hard-pressed heads and part-time secretaries.

In Devon, for example, a mainframe messaging system was found to be too slow and also too expensive in telephone time because messages had to be composed and received during connection. Devon, therefore, has for a year been piloting a more user-friendly e-mail system for Windows, BeyondMail. The pilot has thrown up some interesting issues: the need, for example, to keep control of junk mail. In Devon, according to the report of the pilot project, "schools found they were getting pointless messages relating to County Hall staff . . . about parking, security of handbags, Christmas decorations etc". A filter is now in place, but the issue of how to prevent important items becoming lost among trivial ones is there for all such systems. If it is not controlled, many people simply stop looking.

The Devon schools also wanted adequate training, though they found that half a day was enough for this system. BeyondMail is clearly going to be an asset to Devon schools, not least because the authority uses it to offer schools a way into the Internet at reasonable cost, and links have already been established between Devon and schools in Canada and the United States.

Electronic communication is going to grow. Already, in those authorities which either have no electronic mail or only an unwieldy internal system, there is pressure for something more accessible.

Chris Holder, in Essex, said: "Schools are very keen to be able to have e-mail into local firms and to their governors, perhaps directly to the person they want in the authority. I think that will take us down the Internet route. "

Peter Williams, of Key Solutions, who is talking to user authorities about electronic data transfer, foresees that "in five years the advanced school office will probably be doing all its ordering via electronic transfer (some suppliers already have electronic catalogues) perhaps doing bank payments. Then there's the whole area of transfer of pupil records between schools and between local authorities".

Meanwhile, I have a pair of hardly-used trainers, size 10, which pinch a bit. Perhaps I can get them advertised on Devon's e-mail system now the Christmas decorations have come down.

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