Tony Forder is attributed with taking The Robert Smyth School staff from "despair" to "complete confidence" in its computer system and says the key to success is being a dedicated on-site manager. Dorothy Walker reports.
The letter to TES Online was full of praise: "Tony Forder has improved this school immeasurably... he has organised a revolution based on his own hard work and initiative.
"Teaching staff are the usual focus of attention, but in an increasingly ICT-driven educational world, we should be aware of the people in the background who make the ICT work."
Unsigned, the letter came from a teacher at The Robert Smyth School, a technology college in Market Harborough, where Forder has been network manager for the past 18 months. When TES Online contacted him it took some time to convince Forder that he wasn't the subject of a practical joke.
He says he first recognised the potential of ICT back in the late Eighties, when he was made redundant from his job as general manager of a building supplies company.
He took an interest in the computers appearing at work and had read about the exciting new technology emerging. "I could see ICT was going to be very big," he says. "So when redundancy came along, I invested in some training on using the new business software. And I was astounded by the things computers could do.
"I loved the complicated spreadsheet calculations, the way you could search through databases - even the work word processors could handle. I was astonished at these wonderful inventions - I could see so many opportunities for saving time."
His new enthusiasm won Forder a job in computer support and training, and in 1993 he found himself working at Sawtry Community College in Cambridgeshire, training teachers how to use the network of PCs about to be installed. Within months he had accepted a permanent position.
He shared network management duties with three teachers, so that no-one carried all the responsibility. But the arrangement soon proved unworkable. "The teachers had lots of other demands on their time and couldn't always be around in an emergency. Soon I was doing the job on my own."
He soon found himself trying to outwit students who were hell-bent on sabotaging the system. He says: "Only a tiny minority were causing the problems, but it made the job very demanding.
"It was a battle of wills. We brought in all kinds of software and hardware that would at least make it difficult for kids to make changes to the systems. But as they became more proficient - it became even tougher to out-guess them."
The problem was eventually cured y introducing a computer user's code of practice, which students and parents signed, and which won widespread support.
Forder believes that much of a network manager's success depends on being able to communicate with a range of people and set realistic expectations.
"When people first invest in ICT, they don't realise how much they have to continue to invest. You need someone in the organisation who will say, 'this is what is going to happen' - you have created a monster and you have to continue to feed it.
"People talk about three-year plans, but an 18-month plan is more realistic, because technology changes so much." He cites the example of the administration software used at The Robert Smyth School: in the last year, the specification of the machine needed to run it has almost tripled and the school now has to change all its administration hardware.
In late 1999, when Forder joined Robert Smyth as its first network manager, he faced a huge challenge. As the letter from his colleague says: "The network was failing regularly; software could take six months to be installed; a huge number of computers weren't working, and the feeling among staff was one of despair."
Forder established a structure, defined support methods and responsibilities. "My first task was to clear the backlog and if something could be repaired on site, my target was to do it in a day. That bred a greater interest in using the equipment."
With the support of teachers and the senior management team he introduced a school intranet, put together hands-on training that complements teachers' NOF training and re-designed the school website, which was originally created by sixth-formers. Forder says: "As they progress through the senior years, students have to concentrate more on their studies and they find they can't update the website often enough." Since his arrival the network has doubled in size, to 200 machines, and students and teachers have access to their personal work at home, via the Internet.
Forder believes it is vital for schools to have a dedicated manager on site. "You need someone to put budgets together; to look ahead at what is needed; to deal with suppliers, and manage the daily grind of sorting out support.
"When I first arrived, people were saying they switched on a machine in the hope that it would work. Now they are really disappointed if it doesn't.
"I want to see everyone eager to use ICT - and that comes from having a system they can rely on."
And the letter-writer's verdict? "The feeling is now one of complete confidence."