Bring in the receivers

4th November 2007 at 00:00

Mobile phones and walkie-talkies have become valued assets in school and college management, in everything from monitoring trips to invigilating at exams.

One day in 1981, when I was a primary head, Mike, my deputy, was leading a walking party in Derbyshire. As the children were resting and eating their sandwiches, a group of youths high up on the hillside rolled a stone down. Mike shouted a warning, but sadly one little girl responded by turning her head just in time for the bounding stone to catch her full in the face, knocking out several teeth and leaving her in considerable pain.

Mike set off to run all the way down the valley for help. After a couple of miles, by sheer good luck he encountered a police car. From that point on, the level of response was superb. It could all have been much worse, however, and try as we might, we could not at that time have responded any better.

Today, Mike could have been carrying a mobile phone. Not only could he have summoned help, but once the girl was in the hands of the emergency services, he could have kept school informed without the coach having to stand by a phone box. We could have kept the girl's parents continuously in the picture and they could have spoken direct to Mike.

It is exactly this line of thinking which is causing many schools to look at mobile phones. At Wolgarston High School in Staffordshire, deputy head Trevor Wilson explains that they "got a mobile phone this summer, primarily for the minibus. We can evacuate pupils from a broken-down bus on the motorway, dial 999 and call AA Rescue, and report the situation to school all without a teacher having to leave the pupils".

According to Colin Herniman, managing director of Mercury Mobile Services, after first buying mobiles for emergency use, schools then begin to use them for more routine communications. "It's developed from an emergency package through into the normal business scenario we find then that schools use them just as any other business does. Heads go to conferences and meetings just like anybody else."

So, for example, when I met Neil Bonsall, deputy head of Hucknall National School in Nottingham, at a meeting, I found that he was carrying a mobile. It is his own phone, but the school reimburses him for school use. "The school bought one phone, and several of us on the management team bought our own. We give the school phone to anyone who is going out on a visit." The management team's phones are usually switched off when they teach, "the only exception is when we know we might be needed for something crucial."

Mobile phones put the user instantly in touch with the outside world. Within the school building and grounds, though, there may be other needs and different solutions.

At Wolgarston, although they found a mobile phone was ideal safety equipment for the minibus, their other problem keeping in touch with the caretaker on a big site had to be solved in a different way. Trevor Wilson explains that "It was frustrating. Somebody had to walk round the site to find him. People were dealing with things that weren't their business. If a delivery came, the head or the deputy would accept it rather than find the caretaker."

The answer was to equip the caretaker with a two-way radio transceiver one of those little black "walkie-talkie" devices that you see security people using. "He has one and we leave one in the office switched on, so that we can get him straight away. It's solved all the problems, and it releases time because people are doing their own jobs."

Once the transceivers (supplied by Zycomm Electronics) were in, Wolgarston staff soon found other uses for them on fire drills or for supervising cross-country running, although the range is limited to a mile or less. Equipping an examination invigilator with a transceiver also means that there is no need to have a student sitting outside the exam room as a runner, should the invigilator need help.

High Peak College, near Buxton, has a more extensive transceiver system. The main reason, explains services manager James Iball, is that it is "one of the few further education colleges with residential accommodation. We have responsibilities throughout the night, seven days a week".

The installation at High Peak was complicated by the buildings, which are ex-RAF reinforced-concrete structures, and by the hilly surroundings. "We tried a number of systems, but they all failed until Zycomm solved the problems for us."

The college has 17 two-way radios, boosted by a base "talk-through" unit that brings Buxton, two-and-half miles away, well within range. There is reassurance for residential staff at night, who can easily get in touch with each other and with security patrols. At High View, as at Wolgarston, communication with caretakers has been transformed. James Iball feels that "It's the best thing we have for instant communication. I've worked in colleges and universities for 20 years and there has always been a communication problem wherever there are support staff with no fixed working base". Now, he explains, "If a caretaker wants to talk to me, he doesn't have to spend time chasing. It's a real time-saver".

The time is obviously coming when it will be people, rather than buildings, who are "on the phone" and each one of us will have a single phone number for life. Colin Herniman visualises the time when we will each carry a handset that will choose the most convenient route for our calls. He is already being asked about linking mobiles to computers, so that a school party on a field trip might, for example, have access to a biological or geological database at school or in a library via a mobile phone and a notebook computer.

This is a very fast-moving and potentially exciting area, and schools which pride themselves on preparing pupils for the real world ought arguably to be keeping up.

Mercury Communications Mobile Services Newmarket Avenue, White Horse Business Park, Trowbridge, Wiltshire BA14 0XQ. Tel: 0500 506070 BT Mobile Communications Arlington Business Centre, Millshaw Park Lane, Leeds LS11 0NE. Tel: 0800 313000 Zycomm Electronics 51 Nottingham Road, Ripley, Derby DE5 3AS.

Tel: 0773 570123.

Mobile phones.

A mobile phone works on one of four networks Cellnet, Vodaphone, Hutchison Telecom ("Orange") or Mercury One 2 One. Most of the phones you have seen up to now have been linked to Cellnet or Vodaphone's analogue networks. Gradually, though, digital technology is coming, offering better reception. Mercury One 2 One, Orange, Cellnet Primetime Plus and Vodaphone Eurodigital are all digital services.

When you buy a mobile phone, your supplier, who is independent of the networks, connects you to one of them and collects all the charges from you. There are lots of suppliers. Some are big well-known names (Mercury and BT, for example); some are back-street operations that might be dealing in stolen phones. In between these two extremes, there is a host of perfectly respectable small and medium-sized organisations. The senior teachers at Hucknall National School had their phones from Curry's in the local high street, who were doing a special offer.

A reputable firm (which is likely to be in membership of the FCS (Federation of Communication Services) will give you reliable advice and provide you with a contract that abides by basic principles. It will not, for example, ask you to sign up for several years at a time. Not all contracts are the same, and you should shop around and negotiate. Itemised billing, for instance, which is useful when careful accounting is needed, may be either free or charged for. However, as Colin Herniman points out, "there is no such thing as a free lunch. If a firm offers a phone for Pounds 10, that someone else asks Pounds 100 for, then you can be sure there's a reason".

Which phone?

A hand portable is very convenient. A transportable is heavier, but picks up weak signals better. The choice of phones is bewildering, and changing all the time. Some features are more to do with image and design than with function. One of the most important practicalities, though,is how long the battery will last both in use ("talktime") and on standby. It can vary significantly from phone to phone.

Coverage The analogue networks of Cellnet and Vodaphone claim to cover 99 per cent of the country. The trouble is that the 1 per cent which remains is likely to be the sort of moorland area in which school parties might need help. Check your requirements against what the supplier says. (Coverage improves all the time, however.) A transportable much heavier than a pocket phone, but more powerful gives better coverage.

Costs This a very competitive market, and costs are being driven down all the time. There are four basic costs: the phone itself, which you buy; a fee for connection to one of the networks; a monthly charge and a cost per call. There are lots of special offers a cheap phone, perhaps, or free connection. Each supplier, too, offers a range of tariffs. You can have a cheap monthly subscription and expensive calls, or a more expensive subscription and cheaper calls. Some suppliers just offer two schemes; others have half-a-dozen.

Schools which want to use a mobile for emergencies usually opt for a low-subscription "emergency" tariff. In Colin Herniman's experience, though, "most people start on the low user and then find they want a business tariff". (A business tariff may halve the costs of the calls, but double the monthly subscription.) With this in mind, you need to check the contract for the cost of changing from one tariff to the other.

Radio Transceivers.

Wolgarston has three transceivers from Zycomm Electronics in Ripley, Derbyshire, who supply a lot of schools and colleges. High Peak has 17, and a talk-through base unit also from Zycomm. Each transceiver costs about Pounds 350. There are virtually no running costs, although a DTI licence is needed, which costs from about Pounds 120 a year. The range is about a mile, but reception can be affected inside buildings or on hilly sites. A base station that picks up the signal and strengthens it will cost about Pounds 1,500. At High Peak, with a base station, staff can use transceivers all over town.

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