Funding for Netherhall

14th April 2000 at 01:00
The idea of a company paying a teacher to take a day off each week may sound like the ultimate in corporate funding. But according to Alastair Wells, Netherhall School's head of ICT: "Instead of a four-day week, it's like an extra four days in one." Rather than allowing a break, Wells spends the day on research and development for the innovative ICT work produced at the school. From early morning to late at night, he meets with partners in Cambridge, Reading, Norwich and London, reporting on progress and brainstorming ideas, or he gives a lecture, writes newspaper articles and reviews, shows visitors around the school and sets up resources for his pupils.

This unique industrial sponsorship was born out of the close relationships that Netherhall School has built up with industry and the community. Staff (and indirectly the students) work closely with key sponsors and supporters to improve the school's infrastructure, management and curriculum.

At the core of its relationships is the NEON (Netherhall Education ONline) Partnership, which comprises eight companies: Anglia Multimedia; Compaq; Education Online; NTL; Sun Microsystems; Oracle; UUNet; and the University of Cambridge Local Examinations Syndicate (UCLES).

The NEON partners are working to develop a business model for the local delivery of ICT infrastructure and content. "We want to see what models we can explore until we get affordable," says Wells. "Our partners are sensitive to the fact that hardware can be very expensive and that the cost is too prohibitive for most schools, yet they want all schools online because they are at the heart of our communities."

The main aim is to seek ways that enable schools to become financially self-sufficient through developing Web materials. With increasing access to online publishing tools and global communications, schools can produce, assess and sell their learning support materials to wider audiences.

Educational interests come before commercial interests or profit, Wells asserts. According to the school website: "The NEON Partnership is discussing with publishers and businesses various ways to explore and refine these models and to investigate how publishers can add value to school-developed materials. Investigating such models in a national context will bring economies of scale and facilitate the sharing of good practice, so raising standards."

Netherhall School's production of multimedia CD-Roms and interactive video material has spawned its own business, Netherhall Software. This proactive approach to learning dates back to 1986 when the school won a bid to take part in a Government initiative to develop computer programs for the education sector, thereby becoming one of the first British schools to help design the original BBC programs. They have since developed materials for various organisations, such as HSBC, Hobsons Publishing, and more recently, the Imperial War Museum. As Wells emphasises, funding is not all about cash. Instead of receiving payment, the school history department was granted copyright on the museum's pictures. "Rather than always looking for a direct means of funding, this business mode can be shared by all schools," he says.

NEON started four years ago as a means for the computer companies to see what was needed in schools. Each partner was interested in a different niche, as opposed to straightforward delivery of a product or service. "For example, Sun Microsystems wanted to know what specification of computer was required for our network access, so they spent two years watching us with one computer until we needed a more expensive one. It was valuable feedback for them," Wells explains. "UUNet wanted to explore the growth in demand for Internet access, so they monitored our Internet traffic to see if there was a bottleneck and what specification of line was needed. Then they were able to suggest and market these findings to other schools." In return the school received free equipment, Internet access and technical support from the two companies.

Netherhall School benefits from its central location in Cambridge, near some of the UK's major technology and Internet research companies at the local Science Park. Wells advises schools to look to a clear local sponsor in the area, usually the town's largest employer. Such humble, local initiatives earn the school a good reputation and can lead to national and international contacts. The school takes part in pilot after pilot, completing questionnaires and surveys, and applying to join in various projects. Does this disrupt or enhance the children's learning? "They don't notice it," claims Wells, "they are just using IT in the classroom."

Netherhall was one of two schools in England to be invited by the European Commission to participate in the Socrates Mailbox Project, a trial of email communications between primary and secondary schools. It secured sponsorship to receive free Internet subscriptions, modems, software, computers and cable connections to all the schools involved in the project. "ICT could be provided free to schools," believes Wells.

Teachers or heads who are concerned about commercial intrusion need to identify the right partners. Corporate and community funding is no longer about flying company flags and banners around the playground. The more worthwhile causes reveal themselves through merit and word-of-mouth. "Our partners are discreet," says Wells. "We have chosen to support them through links to their sites from our school website, and we can provide brochures and documents to those who want them. Our partners are much more interested in working for education in a positive way, not being put on a pedestal. It's a very business-like arrangement."

Neither need teachers be money-grabbing salespeople or technology experts to attract funding. Wells joined Netherhall in 1976, "before computers existed", and laughs at the notion of having had any business experience. "Starting out cold can be hard, but it can be very successful," he says. "Know what you want to achieve in ICT and why, approach the companies that have a role in that niche, and tell them what you can give them in return."

Louise Goldsbury is a freelance journalist.

The Netherhall School and Sixth Form Centre.

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