Mr Fixit on the line;Managed services

12th February 1999 at 00:00
He's the invisible man miles away from your school who can be a saviour when your network develops problems.

Pete Watts knows a magical story about mice that fly and windows that open and shut on their own. But it is not part of his folklore repertoire for the youngsters in his class - this is the true tale about his school keeping its computers in tip-top shape.

At Potters Green Primary School in Coventry, the magic can be seen on screen. There may be nobody in sight, but at the hint of any problem with the school's network of machines, there is one computer that comes alive. In aflurry of mouse clicks by an unseen hand, words flash up on the screen, windows are opened and closed, until the reassuring message appears: "Thank you. I've fixed it - you are OK now."

The friendly fixer is a guru called Matthew, who sits more than 100 miles away in Harlow, Essex, at the headquarters of Akhter Computers. He chimes into the Potters Green network over a telephone line, monitoring and managing it by remote control. He is one of a team of Akhter experts helping the school staff to make the most of their technology and their time.

For the past 18 months, Pete Watts and his colleagues at Potters Green have been willing guinea-pigs in an exercise designed to define the kinds of support a primary school needs in order to use computers and the Internet effectively - everything from running wires between machines to providing teacher-friendly Internet software. Akhter, an internet service provider which also markets hardware and software, aims to mix and match different elements to provide a personalised "managed service" that takes care of all the things a school chooses not to look after itself.

Managed services are an element of the Government's strategy to get schools connected to its National Grid for Learning, and Akhter is trying to pioneer bespoke managed services that can be taken up by individual schools.

Potters Green School is no stranger to technology. With a network that includes 24 PCs and a clutch of Acorns, it can furnish each of its 14 classes with at least two machines and high-speed links to the Internet. Children first make friends with the computer in nursery class. They later move on to emailing schools in New Zealand and Singapore, and use Internet material to research everything from rain forests to the Romans.

With the school's head, Chris Thatcher, this year's President of the National Association of Head Teachers, joint deputy head Pete Watts assumes responsibility for technology in his absence. When Pete says "I know one side of a PC from the other," he's being modest; in fact he is sufficiently clued-up to handle the day-to-day technical glitches that crop up in the classroom. But when it comes to the technical nitty-gritty of troubleshooting for a sophisticated computer network, he simply can't afford the time.

He says: "Recently, unknown to me, a member of staff changed a password and I couldn't pick up email. I phoned Matthew at Akhter, he asked me a couple of questions, and it was fixed. I could have spent half an hour finding the problem, but I made one phone call and in 30 seconds it was solved."

He has been on the receiving end of technical support from various companies in the past, and it wasn't all plain sailing. He says: "Some firms were really abrupt. Once, when I had a problem with our Internet browser software, the reply came by email: 'I don't use that software - why don't you change to another browser?' We really needed help, and that's all we got.

"Akhter are marvellous. We get straight through to people who know exactly what they are doing and things are put right immediately."

Akhter staff have been enthusiastically volunteering to lend a hand with almost everything, even fixing hardware, normally the responsibility of the local authority. For other schools, a managed service would be linked to the purchase of Akhter's Genie Internet System, a complete package of hardware, software and school-friendly Internet provision designed to support information and communications technology requirements at key stages 1 and 2.

The annual cost of service varies according to how much responsibility a school wishes to contract out. Hardware maintenance on a typical eight-PC system works out at pound;600 per year. At the top end of the scale, managing all technical problems, right down to glitches on each desktop computer, costs pound;175-200 per machine per year.

Akhter's Alan Tillbrook believes fail-safe software built into classroom computers makes the top-end service unnecessary for most schools. "When a primary spends no more than pound;100 per pupil on ICT in a year, the cost is prohibitive."

At Potters Green, around pound;1,500 would have to be found annually to cover Akhter's support of the network and Internet connection - expenditure that Pete Watts believes could bring savings. "Any teacher is worth pound;100 for half a day, so it doesn't take long to make a saving."

He says: "With this service, I can spend time developing the curriculum and working with staff. Teachers don't want to spend their time sorting out finicky problems. If the technology is always available and reliable, they can get on with their jobs, and develop their skills in using ICT in the classroom. Our staff have acquired a really impressive range of skills since this exercise began."

Akhter Computers 01279 821 200

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