The bug that could consume us all;Millennium;School management

2nd October 1998 at 01:00
Jackie Cockburn and Gillian Macdonald report on how schools are facing up to millennium computer problems

Schools and education authorities in Scotland are starting to appoint staff to deal with the millennium bug, as the countdown to the year zero approaches and authorities nervous of further accusations of mismanagement seek to cover themselves.

The bug is caused by computer programs that will not recognise the digits 00 when it comes to changing them from 99, and will read the year 1900 for 2000. It can affect heating, telephone and security systems - anything with dates controlled by a microprocessor - as well as classroom computers, servers and software.

For education authorities the issue has become a number one priority, and many, like West Lothian, are setting up committees to deal with it. The Convention of Scottish Local Authorities has even appointed its own Year 2000 co-ordinator, John Wright, former information technology director for Glasgow City Council, who took up his post three weeks ago. He is responsible for all local authorities and reports to Scottish Office industry minister, Gus Macdonald.

Wright says: "A lot of schools will be affected, because their computers can be anything up to 10 years old, including BBC Micros, or second-hand ones donated to them. Anything more than two or three years old is likely to be affected, and anything that processes a date could fail. When it fails, it could stop functioning completely or, worse, process data wrongly and corrupt it.

"Even a modern PC could be running old software, so schools need to check hardware, operating systems and applications."

He says it should be possible for someone with little technical expertise to look at applications and see how the date is formatted. "If it's two digits for the day, two for the month and four for the year, it's OK. It should also be possible to set up files with forward dates and see if they are processed properly."

The situation across the local authorities is, he says, very patchy. Some, like Perth and Kinross, seem to be including schools, others, like Glasgow, are leaving it to education departments to do their own inventories and deal with suppliers.

A spokesman for Glasgow says that, on the school administration side, "everything we have bought since January 1 is compliant and most of our major computers are rented, so the onus is on the rental company to ensure that they will not be adversely affected."

Alan Black of the Education Computer Support Unit (ECSU) which serves 12 ex-Strathclyde authorities, is "reasonably happy there will be no major impact".

John Wright's advice is that education authorities should try to co-ordinate checks for schools, establish an inventory with key equipment, approach the suppliers and feed information back to schools.

Schools wishing to run checks themselves, should do their own inventory - identify the type and serial number, then go direct to the supplier to establish whether it will be at risk. If in doubt, go to the education director's office.

Many school heating systems and administration networks will have to be reprogrammed, but the implications for the curriculum are limited, according to John Munro, IT co-ordinator at Lornshill secondary in Alloa, Clackmannanshire.

He says: "Lornshill uses Acorn computers which are compliant, and in fact under-investment in information technology in schools has worked in our favour this time. I am responsible for the Internet access in our school. We use Unix, which is compliant well into the next century."

Mr Munro finds there are even educational benefits regarding the millennium bug. He enjoys the fact that he can relate his subject to real life and can explain the importance of good programming to his pupils, who hear "lots of hype" about the millennium bug.

"It's a useful teaching tool. I can show them the program that involves the bug as well as explain that it isn't really a bug at all. It was a conscious programming decision to save space by using two digits to represent the year and not four."

The main concern for teachers like Mr Munro is "Will we get paid? We don't want any gremlin in the system getting our salary lost."

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