Joined-up thinking

10th March 2000 at 00:00
The threat of hackers stealing sensitive data has made some schools wary of

linking computers via a network, reports Phil Revell.

THE STORY made the front pages of the local paper: West Midlands pupils had set up an Internet dating service using lists of names and addresses they had obtained from the school.

Many suspected that the youngsters had hacked into the school's computer system to get the information.

The case illustrates a real dilemma: putting all school information - for administration as well as for the curriculum - on the same computer system would be so convenient, but how do you stop sensitive information slipping into the wrong hands?

Many think networking is an essential step on the road to managing schools effectively. But last year one correspondent to The TES said the idea was plain "bonkers" - a comment that provoked a great response.

Putting it bluntly, networking is a minefield. It involves one of the largest spending decisions facing schools and, as you can imagine, such a big decision fuels heated debate.

Networking simply means wiring up of computers to allow easy communication between machines. The advantages of this for the classroom are immense: it makes Internet access easier, allows machines to share software and gives pupils and teachers the freedom to work from almost any machine. Any school with more than a couple of computers can run a network.

However, many senior managers are concerned that confidential information will find its way into the wrong hands, or that young hackers could use their skills to create havoc with a school's system.

One authority took the threat so seriously that it spent tens of thousands of pounds creating a separate administration network - for the whole area. Telford and the Wrekin in Shropshire has installed a netwrk that offers "broad-band" high-speed access to all the authority's schools and libraries.

However, administration is run over a parallel network, with separate optical lines and separate host servers in schools.

"We don't want some cute 11-year-olds getting into our finances and ending up in Barbados," says Graham Foster, Shropshire council's resources and development manager.

Senior managers in schools are equally cautious. Robin Davies is information technology project manager in Bracknell Forest: "This is a hot issue for schools," he says. "There's a strong desire for a physical separation. By and large, in our secondary schools there are separate networks."

But are such fears misplaced? Manufacturers and suppliers think so. Indeed, one spoke of "paranoia" in schools over the issue. "There is no reason to keep the systems physically separate," says John Warwick from Capita, the firm which supplies the Schools Information Management System (SIMS). "Let the security system handle it."

RM, a leading computer firm, is equally forthright. In a recent survey it found that three out of four schools wanted to keep the systems separate.

RM will fit the system the client demands and, if schools are concerned about security, they can fit dual-port "routers" which split a single ISDN (high-speed communication) line into two networks. But the company believes that schools should consider the advantages of running one system.

"If you are going to make the teacher's life easier you have to have one machine to do everything," says Ray Fleming, RM's secondary schools' manager.

In the case of the West Midlands school, the computer systm was found not guilty. As so often with new technology, operator error was to blame: the pupils had simply filched class lists left on a teacher's desk.

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