Gerald Haigh visits a school with a talent for spotting high-flyers and meets a student who's made sport his business
A hi-tech approach to sports day with everything tracked and reported electronically is pretty impressive. But then you probably know enough about schools and ICT not to be too surprised. Even when you find out that the whole system was designed and put together by one of the sixth-formers, you're admiring, but not jaw-droppingly astonished. Nothing that today's young technology wizards get up to can stop us in our tracks. However, there is something a bit special about this particular story.
The sports day was at Hurstpierpoint College, an independent school in West Sussex. Every year the college organises an athletics meeting for some 27 Sussex preparatory schools - around 350 competitors in all. The entries have to be sent in advance, listed, sorted into heats and printed in a programme. On the day, the results must be collected from the various finishing points around the field, brought to a central point, collated and converted into points, and a summary displayed to the spectators. It's a task that's just begging for an information technology solution.
Enter Harry Aldridge, a 17-year-old Hurstpierpoint sixth-former. Harry had just the solution, which was for the judges around the field to enter results on hand-held computers, also known as personal digital assistants (PDAs). They could then be transmitted by broadband wireless connection to a central computer, where the results would be analysed, points allocated and so on, and a stream of information passed to a team operating an electronic scoreboard.
Although many schools use software to manage their sports events, there can't be many that have hit on, and brought to reality, the idea of using PDAs wirelessly linked to a base as recording devices out in the field.
The whole thing worked faultlessly on the day, much to the relief of everyone - except Harry, it seems, who never doubted that it would work.
("Only a power cut would have scuppered us," said one member of staff. "Oh no it wouldn't," said Harry. "We had that covered, too.") Impressive though it was, for Harry and for the college, the sports day was really just a first step. It was, in fact, a live test of the wireless technology which will power the public broadband service that Harry's own company "Bluenowhere" will launch in January. Harry, like every successful entrepreneur, saw a niche and was confident he had the nous to fill it.
"I formed Bluenowhere in February 2003, with the aim of entering the government auctions to obtain a licence to operate wireless broadband in the south-east of England," he says. "There was poor availability of broadband in rural Sussex and I decided to see if I could provide it myself, because I was impatient."
At the auction, however, the bidding price went higher than expected and since then Harry has worked out a viable alternative with his partners, using an unlicensed frequency. The Bluenowhere broadband service will start this January with a core of users based at the college and in its community of families. Early in 2005 it will roll out to the public across a large part of rural Sussex.
Harry Aldridge is very much a product of his time - someone who has hit on an area of technological development which is moving so fast that being 17 matters little, except that your dad has to come with you to sign financial papers, and people do a double-take when you enter a conference room or a government office.
"My dad encouraged me because I don't have any responsibilities," says Harry. "I don't need a stable income and I don't have a mortgage. If I was a bit older it could be more difficult."
During this developmental time, support from the college has clearly been all-important. They spotted him early, for one thing, and took him from his preparatory school on one of Hurstpierpoint's ICT scholarships. Richard Hurley, head of ICT, says: "You're looking for people who are quite exceptional, and usually there are three types: one is brilliant at graphics - they're artists; the second type is interested in hardware - they can take it apart and build it; and the third type is the coder."
Harry, it seems, broke the mould. Though he can do the other things, his own speciality lies in a deep insight into what computers are going to do for society and the world at large.
"He was unusual, and still is," says Richard Hurley. "What's absolutely amazing is his level of knowledge of the industry - his vision of the computer age. When he came for his interview, aged 13, he was asking me questions I couldn't answer, and I set up a link for him with a former student who was studying computer science at Oxford."
Harry Aldridge is blessed in many ways. He has a questioning, alert brain, determination, and an engaging personality. Add to this the understanding and support he's clearly getting from school, home, and from friends and advisers in business and you start to see that, viewed from the craggy heights of mature adulthood, Harry looks like Road Runner, the cartoon character: he's arrived in one cloud of dust, and he's about to depart for some far horizon in another.
Secrets of success
Harry Aldridge is one of a steady stream of able ICT practitioners and theorists emerging from Hurstpierpoint College's ICT department. What are the secrets of its success?
Talent spotting: the school's ICT scholarship scheme identifies a handful of high-flyers each year at an early stage.
Keeping up to date: "The teacher has to be as much an enthusiast as the students," says Richard Hurley.
Keeping in touch with the industry: a member of Hurstpierpoint's ICTdepartment works partly in the school and partly in his own IT business.
Former students working in IT are also important as contacts.
Employability is as important as exam results: ICT companies are on the lookout for exceptional young people, and may want them straight from school. "We had one lad who was paid a retainer by a company while he was doing his last year with us," says Richard Hurley.
Pushing able students: "In the syllabuses we use, the coursework is quite open-ended and so this is an area where we can extend students."
Winning the confidence of parents: you will need their support when a student is taking the non-university route. "There are those who think that education should go a certain way - primary to secondary, to university, to a job."
Ensuring the support of senior management: the Hurstpierpoint experience shows that an exciting ICT department can be different in style to other traditional departments, and have alternative outcomes. It's a clear advantage to have a head and governors with the necessary vision and confidence.