One 'Crash' course worth taking

27th June 1997 at 01:00
No one likes to learn from their mistakes but, Gerald Haigh says, you can learn from other people's

Has information technology revolutionised school administration? Perhaps it has - lots of irksome tasks, such as producing and updating pupil lists, and filling in DFEE statistical returns, have become hugely easier.

However, let me just challenge the received wisdom by putting the following questions.

For example, just how many comprehensive and powerful computerised admin systems are still being grossly under-used (mainly because of lack of time for training and reflection) several years after their installation?

And just how many schools have genuinely, hand on heart, reaped all, or even most, of the promised cost and time savings from the introduction of computerised registration? In how many schools has the introduction of computerised systems made the classroom teacher's job more difficult not just for a short time but for long enough for it to seem a permanent problem? In how many cases have computerised systems been fouled up by a failure to simplify and tidy the manual processes in advance? How often would this tidying up of the manual processes have actually achieved most of the objectives intended for the computerised system anyway? How much grief, inefficiency and waste has been caused by moving too quickly from "paper and people" systems to computers? In how many schools is there now a terrible, suppressed feeling (knowledge, indeed) that the wrong system has been installed? How many careers and reputations depend on the continued suppression of such feelings?

Now let me come clean. I can't pretend that these heretical thoughts have some to me unbidden. They are inspired by a new book about computer disasters in both the private and public sectors. Crash, by Tony Collins with David Bicknell (Simon and Schuster, Pounds 20) may not be as overtly sexy as David Cronenberg's film of the same name, but it is considerably more enthralling, and in my view all headteachers ought to read it. The book tells a number of sorry and salutary tales, some of them very high profile at the time they happened. We read, for example, of the Wessex Regional Health Authority's "RISP" management system, eventually cancelled at a loss of, "Pounds 20-43 million - nobody knows exactly how much because proper records were not kept". We are also told of the London Ambulance Service's agonies (to say nothing of the agonies of their patients) brought about by a new all-embracing system that crashed around everyone's ears.

There are lots of stories like these, all of them marked by huge financial losses, and by the difficulty of pinning down responsibility for what happened.

There are, however, no directly educational examples in the book, but this is perhaps a strength, because education does tend to be parochial, and before heads walk into trouble, they could do a lot worse than looking at what has happened in other areas.

The stories told here graphically illustrate so many general principles worth taking note of when looking at systems: that you must simplify your systems before computerising them; that staff savings will not inevitably follow the introduction of IT; that systems should be introduced in stages; that suppliers of IT err on the side of optimism when telling you what their systems will do; that people will be afraid to admit when things are going badly wrong.

Just two quotes will ring bells in many schools - "No matter how well it is planned, something unexpectedly menacing will leap out of the dark on the day it goes live," and, perhaps most important, "New technology should be installed only for a specific reason, for a specific purpose and to give a specific tangible advantage."

The most important lesson is that heads and governing bodies being pressed to introduce computerised systems must ask, all the time, exactly what the benefits will be. In so many cases described in the book, there has been a vague belief that computers must inevitably improve things.

"Managers had relied on computerisation to reform the organisation, which is like investing in a new wardrobe of smaller clothes in the expectation you will lose weight" What these managers - and therefore heads - should have been doing was not eagerly drinking in everything the enthusiasts told them, but asking basic questions about what the proposed system would do. "If you ask clear questions and the reply is swathed in technobabble, you know the project is done for."

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