Bespoke tailoring

11th November 1994 at 00:00
Primary heads in Norfolk run their schools with customised software on Apple Macs. Gerald Haigh reports on a system with a difference. The University of East Anglia's motto is "Do different", and refers to an ancient saying (probably invented in a folk club in 1958) that "Norfolk do different". Whether or not the county's policy on primary school management information systems is driven by this tradition, I cannot tell. Different, though, it certainly is.

For one thing, the system is a bespoke one, written by Scott Reed Associates for Norfolk primary schools. What really sets it apart, though, is that it runs on the Apple Macintosh.

In the late Eighties, when local authorities across the country were planning IT support for local management of schools, it was felt that the primaries should not have to struggle with complex PC operating systems, but should be given Macs. It was a bold not to say expensive thing to do, given the price of Macs at that time. It also flew in the face of IT wisdom, which says that you decide on the software first and then look for the platform.

For some time, therefore, the search was on for suitable software to run on the Macs. It was not an easy quest, and there were frustrations and dead ends. After some initial trials, it was decided to commission a purpose-made system for Norfolk primaries. The tender was won by Scott Reed, who came up with PRIMIS a package of administration software that looks after staff and student data and responds to the reporting needs of the authority and the Department for Education.

Although PRIMIS inevitably shares some characteristics with Scott Reed's well-known Phoenix schools software suite, it is very much a one-off, tailored to Norfolk's procedures and to the requirements of the county's primary schools.

Norfolk schools are helped by a five-person computer support team. The size of their patch 400 primary schools scattered across a rural county 80 miles wide and 40 miles north to south makes their job a daunting one. It seems a fair bet, in fact, that had primaries been given PCs with pre-Windows software, the support team might have been swamped by a flood of despairing cries from bemused primary heads and secretaries. As it was, the schools liked their Macs.

"Within six months, they couldn't do without them," says computer support manager Keith Sowter, "and we are now supporting an extra 140 Macs bought by the schools themselves, over and above those supplied by the authority. "

The point about the Apple Mac, for those who do not know, is that the screen is very easy to understand. You move around it with mouse and keyboard, guided by idiot-proof menus and icons which keep telling you what to do. You can, therefore, get started on the Mac very quickly.

Early Mac training was done by taking machines out to the teachers' centres. These training Macs lived in purpose-built trailers that stayed outside County Hall in all weathers.

Later, when more schools had hardware, and the IT team was introducing PRIMIS, training was delivered to cluster groups of 15 heads and secretaries at a time, using their own machines and their own data. (IT trainers across the country have discovered how important it is that users should train on their own data. It makes all the difference both to motivation and to their ability to remember things between one training session and the next.) Sean D'Arts, as an early enthusiast for primary management information systems, may not be an entirely typical user. He is, however, a good example of how a primary head can be helped by the computer. He has three Macs one in the office, where an admin officer carries out the routines, and one each in his own and the deputy head's room. His own machine is a PowerBook laptop, which he takes home each evening. "I write on it and I think on it. It's made me work harder at home, but I don't really think of it as a chore. " The Norfolk experience raises a number of general issues. Whether, for example, the advantages of a bespoke system outweigh the convenience of buying software off the shelf and then working with the supplier to "customise" it. The fact that PRIMIS is exclusive to Norfolk certainly means that changes are quickly and easily made each school keeps a "wish" list, for example, of things they wish the software would do. According to Ann Scott, PRIMIS "allows for the most obscure and complicated family circumstances you can imagine". (Another manifestation presumably of "Norfolk do different".) Schools now have the option of having PRIMIS Plus, which includes an attendance package driven by an optical mark reader.

The other noteworthy feature of the Norfolk approach is the way that, right from the start, there was an assumption that primary schools needed something of their own, whereas in many authorities the primary schools have, as a matter of policy, been given the same system as the secondaries, perhaps with a few tweaks and omissions. That in Norfolk the difference encompasses not only the management software but the hardware and its operating system is particularly striking.

To some extent, the choice of the Mac was dictated by the fact that Norfolk schools are small and scattered, and were assumed to need office computers that would be easy for teaching heads and part-time secretaries to use. Much the same thinking, incidentally, went on in Orkney and Shetland, and Macs are used in the schools there too. This, though, leads inexorably to the thought that if Macs are thought to be best for busy teaching heads working miles away from County Hall, then why are they not thought to be suitable for busy non-teaching heads three city streets away from the education office?

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