How can schools maintain ICT support? By making use of pupils' self-taught skills, says Ian Harris. Many departments come to rely on the keen volunteer
IN THE good old days, information and communications technology was easy to ignore - nothing more than a blip on the curriculum, computers were safely consigned to a damp corner of the craft design and technology block. Gradually, slick PCs replaced the BBC beasts and are now inescapably dotted around schools. If your department's new Pentium keeps you awake at night, you're not alone. The truth is that despite the millions spent on ICT in schools, many teachers still cannot programme even a video recorder.
While today's Playstation generation eagerly awaits e-mail for all and the National Grid for Learning, teachers are sorely tempted to stick their heads in the sand. But the logical answer would be to put students' fascination with technology to good use by getting them to lend struggling staff a helping hand. However, when quizzed on pupils' contributions to ICT, most teachers recount stories of missing mouse-balls, wiped hard disks and screensavers being taught to swear. All reasons why Angie Hatcher, ICT co-ordinator at Cantonian High, Cardiff, was shocked to discover the amount her classes already knew.
"I recently found some of my kids programming in HTML (hypertext mark-up language - the "glue" that holds Web pages together) - I mean, how did they learn that? Some of them don't even have computers."
In fact, building a school website is the most common area where pupils are put to work. A quick surf of school homepages at RM's Eduweb site (www.eduweb.co.uk) reveals many to be deserted, permanently marked "Under construction" and "Coming soon". Usually those designed by pupils stand out as the most professional, often the only sites that are completed.
This is one reason why Wolfreton School, near Hull in East Yorkshire, decided to go one step further and give the job of designing a whole intranet to a pupil. "I commissioned a sixth-former, Duncan Anderson, to design the system," said ICT co-ordinator Malcolm Brooks. "It went towards part of his A-level course, and there was the added bonus that it benefited the school." But couldn't a member of staff have done the job? "Aside from me, not really. I don't think any school can claim to have enough IT-literate staff."
According to Ruth Bourne, programme officer with the British Educational Communications and Technology Agency (BECTA), "Many students have IT skills that have been gained outside their learning institution - on a home computer, for example. Our experience is that when sharing this knowledge in the classroom is encouraged, it is not only beneficial to the class group, but also to the teacher, not only in IT skills progression, but in creating an environment of shared trust and responsibility."
The shortage of proficient staff in schools isn't going to solve itself. It is increasingly difficult to recruit trained technicians, many of whom are creamed off by software companies looking for programmers - teachers and heads too. My own school recently lost its technician to a computer company able to offer a 150 per cent pay rise, company car and full healthcare cover. How can a school counter that?
Come to think of it, that's another reason to call on pupils for support - they'll work for peanuts. At Robert Clack Comprehensive in Dagenham, Essex, the school relies heavily on the expertise of Christopher Ibbitson, a sixth-former. During the past two years he has voluntarily played a big role in networking more than 200 computers, routinely performing essential maintenance and administration.
The ICT co-ordinator, Maneesh Prasad, admits he's lucky to have Chris. "Windows NT networks like ours are very hard to run - they're continuously requiring attention and take a lot of work to manage," he says. "I sometimes wonder what I'd do without him - we simply don't have enough trained staff."
Chris agrees. He is called on to deal with crises and emergencies involving teachers installing software incorrectly or generally "messing things up". He says he finds it hard to understand why teachers often have difficulty getting to grips with equipment.
"I think it wouldn't be hard for teachers and staff to learn about IT in the same way as I have - by reading the manuals and playing with software. The problem is many teachers at our school don't have the time to devote to learning new skills, and often see it as a subject taught separately that's got nothing to do with them."
He notes that the school's network manager also has to split his time between teaching science and ICT, making Chris's support even more crucial. Of course, being able to incorporate students' interest and prowess in technology depends on teacher-student relationships. If a teacher is not confident with technology and feels threatened by ICT-aware students it is not likely to happen.
Teachers have to tune in to their students. "Incorporating students' interest and prowess in technology is not always plain sailing," warns Nigel Paine, chief executive of the Scottish Council for Educational Technology. "At best it is a huge support and reassurance to the school and real-world experience for the students. At worst it puts all the power of the network control in the hands of someone who is going to leave relatively soon and may leave all sorts of incomprehensible code and set-up routines behind.
"The key to all of this is the teacher. He or she must know exactly what to expect of the student and make sure that the work is supervised and documented. Hands up who likes doing the documentation - exactly, pressure often has to be exerted to get this completed.
"Acknowledging the vast technological expertise in every school is a huge bonus for those staff who despair of getting everything to work as they want it. Recognising that a student is a student, not an employee, should follow on quickly. Solve problems together, allocate responsibilities carefully and monitor the work.
"Then hold your hands skywards and be thankful for such a skilled human being to your rescue who learned everything he or she knows somewhere other than the classroom!"
Ohmar Ubadyli. Netherhall School, Cambridge.
Alastair Wells, head of IT, has a whole army of students to run the school's website. "We've taken groups of pupils to develop the site - 35 students do a variety of tasks." Sixth-former Ohmar Ubadyli has contributed a lot to the website. He also writes reviews for the homepage section.
Christopher Ibbitson and Maneesh Prasad
Christopher Ibbitson and Maneesh Prasad (right). Robert Clack School, Dagenham.
Chris laughs that he's a technological dogsbody, on call when things go pear shaped. "I help administer the network, setting up users and dealing with security issues. Users trying to hack the system and infection by macro viruses are problems I've recently faced." What's in it for him? "I don't get paid - although that would be nice. I want a career innetwork management so it's good experience."
Duncan Anderson. Wolfreton School, Hull.
The head of the technology department at Wolfreton School, Hull, asked Duncan to design its website."I wrote the site for my A-Level Computing Project," says Duncan. "Teachers just don't have the time, but I don't think the majority would be able to do it anyway."
Paul Varey. Deanery High School, Wigan.
Pupils enjoy a permanent ISDN connection to the Internet, but for Paul Varey, the ICT co-ordinator, this is a mixed blessing. He has to keep unwanted material out, and relies on pupils to blacklist sites. "This is better than a garden wall system where users are only allowed to access hand-picked sites."