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A model marriage

In setting up its learning grid, one local authority has proved the value of partnerships between schools and business. Hugh John reports

Anyone who has tried getting connected to the Internet will know the process is not always as easy as it should be. Spare a thought, then, for teachers who have been responsible for hooking up their school to the information superhighway. For this reason the British Educational Communications and Technology Agency will next month announce a list of companies which can provide schools and local authorities with a "kitemarked" managed service for the National Grid for Learning (NGFL), taking the strain of running networks away from teachers.

However, some authorities have decided not to wait for the announcement of approved providers and have formulated their own NGFL strategies. Lincolnshire is one that has gone down this route. Its NETLinc initiative will result in a schools network with 4,000 computers and 116,000 users when its four phases are completed in 2002. Jim Speechley, leader of Lincolnshire County Council, is confident the project will "enable schools to communicate and share top-quality materials in a safe and supported environment".

From its inception, the NETLinc team was aware that any information and communications technology (ICT) solution would need to take into account that the county is the second largest in England with a predominance of small, often remote, villages and towns. Of the 389 schools in the county, 60 are secondary and of those only 16 have over 850 pupils.

Tony Green, NETLinc director, says the focus has been to deliver the tools necessary to aid the complete learning process, using systems that require minimal support. When searching for a business partner to implement this strategy, NETLinc wanted a company which understood education as well as Lincolnshire's needs, could bring expertise from other sectors, offer innovative solutions and work in a genuine partnership.

The Data Base, from Nottingham, emerged from the tendering process as the successful firm. With phase one of the project completed, NETLinc is delighted. Geoff Chandler, NETLinc project manager, says: "The two teams have worked extremely closely and understand each other's needs and concerns. The Data Base has people with an educational background who are technically very highly skilled. The NETLinc team has been brought together as secondments from schools to form a group with both technical and managerial experience."

In providing remote systems management and, where needed, systems administration training, the partnership has allowed teachers to do what they do best - teach. Mark Simes, The Data Base director, says: "Teachers need to be free to concentrate on the learning process. They do not want to be IT managers."

The two teams have worked to provide a range of tools for teachers and pupils - intranet, extranet, Internet and personal email addresses for pupils. Steve Smith, The Data Base's training manager, says the project has attempted to balance Web-based learning tools with desktop learning tools. "The software that sits on the local machines and servers is a mixture of Microsoft applications and software from third-party vendors."

Darren Leafe is responsible for all intranet and Internet content at NETLinc. He says the key to a successful intranet is to provide schools with interactive units or topics of work that give pupils or teachers a gateway to that curriculum area. Content is classified at several levels, allowing teachers to fine-tune educational material, and is accessed via searches by key stage. However, phase two of NETLinc's implementation aims to write applications that automatically present pupils with information at the appropriate level as well as allowing them to access it from the intranet or Web.

There certainly is some clever stuff at the hub in Lincoln. Using HP Open View software, the support team can remotely scan the whole network and is often aware of local problems before staff on-site. By employing a highly sophisticated filtering program across the network - I-Gear from UR Labs - staff can ensure that children work in a safer environment.

The main technology partners in the project are Compaq and Cisco, which supply the hardware, with software from Microsoft. Smith, himself a former deputy head, has been impressed by the growing awareness of the particular needs of education - facilitated in part perhaps by the cross-pollination of staff between the two sectors.

Microsoft recognises the value that an educational context brings to its applications. "The reason Microsoft is successful is because it has lots of generic products," says Julian Bailey, Microsoft sales and partner manager. "If you take Microsoft with its generic supply and the classroom there's an obvious gap between the two. This pedagogical layer is what our education partners supply."

The success of NETLinc will be validated at the chalkface. But there's a buzz about a class enjoying its schoolwork - and the Year 6 children at Fossway County Primary School certainly are. Fossway was one of the 35 pilot schools in phase one and Nora Walkley, head teacher, and Mike Follen, the ICT coordinator, are impressed by educational content and level of technical support.

But what have the children enjoyed most? Kayleigh Sreedharen and her friend Natalie Short are in no doubt: "Email and the Internet," they say.

Late entrants to the National Grid should view NETLinc as a good example of a clear-minded, creative and sympathetic partnership between education and business.

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