How to exterminate bugs in the works;Millennium crisis

8th January 1999 at 00:00
Come next New Year, will your school be secure, the heating working and your computer files accessible? It's time to check your systems, writes Chris Johnston.

The end of the world is nigh, if you believe a growing number of doomsayers. They are convinced that the so-called millennium bug will cause chaos when time ticks over into the next new year, causing some computers and electronic devices to malfunction because they cannot cope with the "00" date, reading it as 1900 instead of 2000.

Some think it wise to stock up on food and retreat to rural bunkers. That might be considered extreme, but the United States central bank, the Federal Reserve, is worried enough to be planning to have an additional $50 billion (pound;30 billion) cash in circulation in case cash machines fail.

Big business and governments around the world are working to ensure that their computer systems are millennium-compliant. There is less than a year to get it right. The financial consequences of failing to do so could be enormous and the prospect of lives being lost is very real if systems that control hospital equipment or planes, for example, fail.

The problem is not as acute for the education sector. Nevertheless, schools and local education authorities do not want administration systems to stop working or records to be corrupted.

A recent survey by the British Educational Suppliers Association (BESA) indicated that only a handful of schools were unaware of the millennium bug. But awareness does not necessarily mean that schools are taking action to deal with the problem.

The bug is partly a hardware problem, as it can affect the internal clock of operating systems, but it could also cause difficulties with software, particularly programs that use dates to calculate or sort. There seems to be less awareness that many embedded systems - the chips that control devices such as security and heating systems and telephone switchboards - also need to be checked to ensure they are millennium-compliant.

Just what schools need to do to ensure that everything still works as it should next New Year's Day depends on many factors - the make of the computers, their age, the software versions and how many embedded systems are date-reliant. One thing every school should realise, says the British Educational Communications and Technology Agency, is that a plan for dealing with the problem is vital. "The worst thing is to take the ostrich approach and think it won't happen in your school," warns Dave Hassell, BECTA's head of curriculum and institutional development.

Most schools are not having to deal with the millennium bug alone, as every local authority has a strategy and many schools are relying on their advice.

Mike Satchell, of Newcastle City Council, says the extent of the problem in his area will be clearer when its 117 schools return a survey. He says that all administration systems and networks in schools have been checked for compliance and that priority is being given to "mission critical" devices such as heating and security systems.

Newcastle schools are being asked to inform the authority about the likely cost of replacing or upgrading non-vital equipment. Mr Satchell says the council has assurances from contractors that most embedded systems are compliant and it will be their responsibility to deal with any that are not. However, he says that the "unknown quantities and anomalies" in schools, such as laboratories, cooking and musical equipment, could be the most troublesome: "PCs have to be the least of our worries."

Despite these concerns, Mr Satchell is confident that Newcastle schools at least will beat the bug. "We're certainly fully aware of the problem and a support infrastructure is ready and available for schools," he says.

Devon schools have been told that the effort put into checking for bug problems must relate to the risk involved, says Brian Sussex, the county's senior education officer for information and communications technology. "Our main concern is that schools and libraries can open in January 2000 and provide a healthy and safe environment for pupils, staff and the public." The priorities are ensuring that heating, lighting and communications continue to work.

Mr Sussex says the council has detailed a considerable amount of work to provide Devon schools with guidance on dealing with the millennium problem. The council has also sent out a disk that allows simple checking of computers.

Like Newcastle, Devon has surveyed its 368 schools. The results will give the council a better idea of what action still needs to be taken. Although Mr Sussex is confident that all necessary action will be taken in time, he admits that much still needs to be done. He says it has been difficult to get guarantees from suppliers that products are millennium-compliant.

The council is trying to move to bug-proof versions of the SIMS software used for school management as quickly as possible and is encouraging schools to switch to more recent versions of the widely used Word and Excel programs from Microsoft.

Despite wide awareness of the problem, the BESA survey indicated that about half of primary and secondary schools had not set aside any money for fixing it. The association says this highlights the need for more advice and information to be distributed to schools.

The concern is that schools have many more pressing matters to deal with that millennium preparations will be ignored. "The pre-occupation with other issues is fairly significant," says Mike Smith, professional officer of NAACE, the computer advisers' association. "Take the small primary - they are going to be so strapped just sorting out the literacy and numeracy hours that they may well be tempted to leave it."

Only the most pessimistic believe that the millennium bug will plunge the world into chaos, but schools cannot afford to think that it will not affect them. And time is running out.


* Ask your local authority or funding body about any millennium bug plans.

* Establish who in your school is responsible for overseeing any problems.

* Define your priorities - address high-risk systems first.

* Ensure there is an up-to-date list of hardware and software and embedded systems and ask suppliers if equipment and systems are millennium-compliant.

* Check support agreements to see if they will cover any year 2000 problems.

* Ask for a guarantee that all equipment and software is compliant and that support covers bug-related problems.

* Determine what action is necessary so that ICT links to organisations such as local authorities, examination boards and online providers are not affected.

* Liaise with other schools and organisations about problems and resolutions.

* Check bug websites for helpful news.

* Take action before it is too late.


* ACTION 2000: 0845 601 2000

* BECTA: 01203 416994

* DFEE: 0171 925 5555

* Microsoft: 0870 6010100

* RM: 01235 826 868 www.rmplc.netyear2000

Year 2000

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