Gerald Haigh visits a CTC that has always gone its own way and so was reluctant to get into bed with just one manufacturer
Because Brooke Weston College was purpose built as a city technology college in Corby, Northamptonshire, it was able to start with a clean sheet, which holds lessons for other institutions. There was, for example, the decision to divide the academic year into five equal terms of eight weeks.
The college's approach to management information systems has been similarly creative. In many institutions what happens is that an all-purpose integrated software system comes through the door - often sent in by the local authority. The staff spend the next year trying to master it. There is no doubt that, if and when they succeed, it really will make their jobs much easier.
The other approach, exemplified by Brooke Weston, is to keep one jump ahead and to buy pieces of software as each problem becomes clear. You may end up - as Brooke Weston has done - with software from several different suppliers. The vice-principal, John O'Callaghan, says: "If you want to provide lots of technological solutions for teachers, then I don't believe there is a single company - and certainly not a single product - that will do it for you. "
Brooke Weston, therefore, runs on its Apple network of 350 computers a central administration system, Phoenix, from Scott Reed; a finance system from Key Solutions RM; a swipe-card system for cashless catering, security and registration, Tracs from GTi.
"If you want to do 70 per cent of what is possible," says John O'Callaghan, "you can probably home in on one product such as Key Solutions or SIMS. But to impact on everyone, in all areas, you need two things - a combination of products and the ability to do some work yourself. We have always mixed and matched."
One or two particularly interesting applications stand out. One is the way that Mike Giddings, the trained accountant who is the school's admin and finance manager, uses the finance system to handle money coming in from pupils. Schools collect quite a lot of money over the counter - for school trips, bits of uniform, meals etc. Setting up a foolproof and simple way of dealing with it all can be difficult.
"Because we charge for certain items - uniform, computer discs, replacements for lost ID cards, transport, school trips - we can take in as much as Pounds 6,000 in a day across the desk and the revenue in a year can be Pounds 250,000," says Mike Giddings. The solution was to give every one of the 1,100 pupils a separate account. "We give each of them a statement of their account every four weeks." The system is used in a similar way to deal with the many individuals and groups of people who use the college's leisure and sports facilities outside school hours.
Reporter, the college's system for producing pupil reports, gives parents four interim reports and one full report each year. The interim report is generated using HyperCard and is set up so that teachers mouse-click on the various options. The full report is set up using not HyperCard but ClarisWorks - "because it has a spell check," explains John O'Callaghan, and because it is more personal, with room for handwritten or word-processed text.
All of this is basic administration - information technology being used to save time, improve accuracy and produce good information. John O'Callaghan says the electronic transfer of examination results to the school "is, on its own, worth the expense of the whole system". The cashless catering system, too, by which pupils can pre-load credit cards from a machine, has made a big difference to the way things are run.
Paradoxically, amid this technological sophistication is a drive for solutions that are simple. The streamlined term and holiday pattern is one of these. The swipe-card registration and security system, that allows pupils in through a turnstile, also makes the teachers' job easier. "There are teachers here who have never ever seen a register," says John O'Callaghan.
This is a school which does not use the computer to create its timetable. John believes that the conventional secondary timetable is unnecessarily complicated. "Ours is relatively simple - we just hand over blocks of time and pupils to the departments." The whole philosophy, he says, is that "If solutions aren't simple, they're probably not right."
The arrival of school intranet systems (internal, private Internet-style networks), will make it possible, John O'Callaghan believes, for teachers to glean information easily from the school's management information system. "They'd only have to learn one set of skills. All the information is in there - access for everybody is the key."
He also foresees developments in the analysis of performance and examination data. "There's such a movement towards empirical data - tests, performance indicators, predictions. I really do think that for key managers a certain level of IT skill is necessary." He means not just facility with the equipment and the software, but the ability to understand and visualise the kind of management information that the IT will provide - "To know the questions to ask."
This was vividly illustrated when I talked to Brooke Weston's principal, Gareth Newman. His role, he believes, is to see beyond what is immediately possible. He wants his colleagues to look at the possibility of smart swipe cards bearing information on microchip. He is also talking to Corby Borough Council about his vision of having the school's computer network extended into the town's community and leisure centres - "providing an educational and administrative service to the community at large".
Always, though, he comes back to the most important network - that between the people in his college. "I know every one of our students, and they know me. Those are the links that matter most."
* Scott Reed Tel: 01420 83085GTi Tel: 01722 423232Key Solutions RM Tel: 01943 463346