Sold on the power of 160 computers

25th April 1997 at 01:00
Some schools believe in putting all their IT eggs in one basket.

Victoria Neumark visited one of them

Jeremy Dhondy is systems manager at Queen Elizabeth Boys' School, Barnet. The school, in a leafy suburb of London, has been grant-maintained since 1989 and, since 1995, has returned to its roots as a selective grammar. With 1,100 boys, a high academic achievement, a well-resourced plant and a large payroll, the school is a complex organisation which could not now be run, says Mr Dhondy, without the 160 personal computers and associated software of which he is in charge.

"When we went grant maintained," recalled Mr Dhondy, who teaches geography for half the week, "I was asked by the head if I was interested in running what was a small system. We had five or six computer stations. Now there are 35 on the network, communicating through internal e-mail, accessing attendance, examination and curriculum information. Like Topsy, it growed - fast."

The big decision was to buy SIMS. Its database bought in the early 1990s provided the school with a means not just to co-ordinate pupil registration, but also to keep track of the subject-setting system and examination entries.

An optical mark reader (which works rather like a lottery ticket machine) led to rationalisation of the reports system (since 1992) and keeping track of attendance (since 1994). For reports, there is a comment bank (from a SIMS module) that lets teachers choose from between 100 and 200 comments for each pupil. The result: reports which are much more personally detailed than the previous hand-written models and which are, moreover, immediately recorded.

Likewise, for attendance, entering the registration figures on the optical reading system means any teacher concerned about truancy can get a print-out instantly and see where problems exist. Again, a SIMS model delivers the goods.

Perhaps the biggest change of all, says Mr Dhondy, was computerised timetables. Every pupil gets a personal timetable on the first day of term and teachers get a version with cover for absence, invigilations, training. "It is no longer a viable option," says Mr Dhondy, "to run a school without a computerised timetable." Especially when the computers are also used to analyse the results of the entrance examinations, the screening tests taken by first-year secondary pupils, key stage 3 standard attainment tasks for 11-14-year-olds and GCSE and A-level predictions. No more scribbling on bits of graph paper.

Is there anything the computers can't do? Mr Dhondy smiles. "I don't think you can run the administration without a computer system," he says gently. Not only are SIMS modules used to operate the payroll, transferring money electronically, they also fill in the dreaded Form 7 whereby basic information about any school is sent to the Department for Education and Employment. Where formerly the senior management team used to spend days tearing their hair out to get the form completed, then secretaries would spend days typing it in, then civil servants would write or key it in to their records, now the computer combs all the requisite directories for the needed data and transfers the whole caboodle electronically to the DFEE. "You can see how it cuts down the margin for error," enthuses Mr Dhondy.

Personnel records, the register of school assets, the indexing and analysis of all sources of information in the library: these now all fit into the computer system. With a new sixth-form centre featuring swipe-card timekeeping and an Internet network about to be completed, it is, as Mr Dhondy, points out, disabling for any teacher not be computer literate.

Were there any problems accustoming staff to the rapid pace of change? "To some extent," Mr Dhondy remarks judiciously, "the problem solves itself, in that you have new staff coming who are familiar with computers. But some of the more senior people have had problems. Famously, one of our older members of staff, in the days before automatic saves, spent hours laboriously pecking out a document, only for the electricity to blow the power and the whole lot to be lost. You could hear the scream halfway down the road!" Training is part of the timetable nowadays, with new staff constantly being offered courses, both in-house and from SIMS and other external agencies. The annual SIMS contract provides technical support for the school's in-house computer technician and seven clerical staff as well as updates on all modules.

Having been in charge of spending more than Pounds 250,000 over the past eight years, what tips does Mr Dhondy have for schools just dipping their toes in cyberspace?

"First of all, trial it. You can spend a lot of money on equipment and find people are not using it properly. It's not just about machines, it's about changing administrative procedures.

"Secondly, but related, the school needs to take computerisation seriously. A system doesn't run itself. As well as needing resources, time and personnel, who will need training, attitudes need to change. Fortunately, our head is very supportive. Otherwise, it couldn't work.

"And third, keep your pupil and staff networks completely separate! That is as important a security device as backing up each day's work on a tape, which is to say it's crucial." Mr Dhondy's calm fractures slightly as he recalls how a clever student had been just a bit too "helpful" in dealing with the problems posed by the approaching millennium. "An awful lot of pupils know an awful lot more than an awful lot of teachers these days and you don't want practical jokes all over your payroll," he says.

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