Pupils could be computer troubleshooters
Cisco Systems proposes to train 14 to 16-year-olds in network support within its 225 sponsored secondaries. They would then be able to fix computer problems in their own schools and also be on hand to visit local primaries.
Andy MacLeod, Cisco's UK education sector manager, said there was a desperate shortage of IT support staff in primary schools in particular, and that the teenagers' work would fit in with the computer courses they take at the sponsored schools, or Cisco academies.
He said: "One of the big problems in schools at the moment is IT support staff. There is, on average, one member of support staff for every five primaries, which is just not enough.
"The system of support at the moment is not working and there do not seem to be any models being put forward that are addressing this. Because our students are on vocational courses where they are learning network support, we think both sides can benefit from this."
Mr MacLeod said Cisco would not profit from the idea, and there were serious issues to overcome before it could become reality. These included making sure that the pupils had sufficient time, alongside their studies, to carry out the work.
But in the long term, he said, it could be extended. As part of their course, youngsters could eventually be on hand to visit local people in their homes when their computers, or other technical equipment, broke down.
"People are paying pound;1.99 per minute to go on to phonelines when they find they need technical support," said Mr MacLeod "How much better would it be for someone from your local community to come around to help with your computer, TV or radio?"
The comments came as the conference was told that Cisco is to sponsor a further 60 secondaries.
Specialist schools, yet to take off in the UK outside England, are raising interest in Northern Ireland, said Liz Reid, chief executive of the specialist schools trust. A conference was held in Belfast last week presenting the concept to heads and educationists.
Ms Reid said: "We await their reaction to the concept of specialisms with interest but also with quiet confidence."
The trust is working with schools with the aim of developing subject-specific professional development courses, she said.