Don't adopt a cavalier attitude to the technology that helps run schools, says Gerald Haigh.
When a school first installs its computerised administration system everyone takes it for granted that the people using it will have to be trained. Most suppliers and local authority support teams include a training package in any deal for new software or hardware. But what happens when a new headteacher arrives or when a teacher is promoted to a position where he or she has to use an information technology package? The initial training may no longer be available, and yet, for example, few primary deputies have had much experience of office computers.
John Walker of SIMS, the UK market leader, cites the example of exam secretaries. "This job is often done by the kind of teacher who is going to be moving on to promotion," he said. "When it happens, somebody else has to learn how to use the appropriate IT package."
Timetabling, similarly, is often done by a particular senior teacher. When he or she leaves, someone has to learn a task which, even with computer support, can be difficult and time-consuming. Some schools are beginning to train admin staff either to take on computer timetabling, or to support the teacher who does it. Mr Walker foresees a general trend towards training understudies who can take over a vital job when someone leaves.
He runs courses for deputies who are aspiring to be heads. He said that governors are becoming more aware of how administrative issues impinge on senior teaching posts. "They'll ask applicants if they know the SIMS system, for example," he said.
Training newly appointed or promoted staff is very much a hit and miss affair. As Mary Marsh, head of Holland Park School, west London, points out: "Even the initial training that you give to everybody will last at best a matter of months. All of those people will need to have top-ups."
People learning a new system need periods of training interspersed with time spent working on it, she explained. "You can get so far with training, then you have to use it and consolidate it."
We have gone through a period during which the admin computer lived in the office, out of the reach and the mind of the classroom teacher. Promotion, therefore, could bring a computerised culture shock. Now, though, things are changing - assessment, registration, records of achievement, the management of special needs - are all bringing the central computer system into the classroom, so that the teacher can either enter or consult data. The school network, therefore, is becoming just that: a tool which handles both teaching materials and management software, and which can, where necessary, transfer data in a way that will eventually render obsolete the notion that the IT on the curriculum is different from admin IT.
Schools, Mary Marsh believes, do not have a good track record in keeping everyone on top of the IT. She says this is a function of the way that schools work. "Nobody in a commercial organisation would put in a computer system without using lots of technicians and doing a lot of training - but they can take the time, because they can often suspend everything for training to take place."
Training in schools is more difficult in contrast to other walks of life. Training needs across a large school differ enormously. "It's difficult to use statutory training days for this kind of work because you don't want to do it to all of the staff at once," says Mary Marsh. At Holland Park, she explains, "We've tried to be as creative as we can, using surgeries and tutorials. We've also tried getting people blocked into adult education courses on site, but that's a considerable commitment. It works well enough for people who are doing systems all day long, but for teachers, using IT systems is only part of the day's work."
Some systems that extend beyond the management corridor do not always bring early or obvious benefit to the classroom teacher who has to learn about them. Computerised registration, for example, can mean only that the familiar and comfortable paper register is taken away and replaced either by an optical mark reader form or by a hand-held electronic device - and all just to help the office staff and the senior management to handle attendance data more easily.
According to John Warwick, marketing director at SIMS, "This is a very important implementation issue." He talks in terms of "completing the loop" so that classroom teachers, senior management and office staff all understand what they have to gain from the new arrangement. For instance, in a school which is starting computerised registration, "the office staff will complain that the teachers are slow to give them information. That's because the loop is not complete - the teachers are not being enabled to see the benefit of what they are doing."
Of course, they see the benefit rather more quickly if the task they are being asked to do is easy to learn. The software supplier, therefore, needs to keep things simple - which, as Jo Williams of Key Solutions told me, is not always easy if the system is to do its job properly. Her company's new Personal Development Planner, which helps to manage records of achievement and career action planning, is intended to be used by careers teachers, form tutors and the students themselves. She explained: "We felt ease of learning was absolutely critical, and we designed a part of it so that a new member of staff could sit down at the machine and have an informative and easy-to-use induction. The real work is between the tutor and the student, and if the computer gets in the way of that, it's doing a disservice."
The more the computerised admin system impinges on classroom teachers, the more schools will have to face the issue of where to put the machines. The various software packages intended to support the special needs co-ordinator - such as the SIMS Senco module - will not work as well as they should if teachers have to compete with the office staff for access to machines. Increasingly, networked hardware is going to be available in head of department areas and in the staffroom. Some schools, for example, are already putting the SIMS Midas module into staffrooms. The use of hardware actually in the classroom, for picking up assessment data, for example, is still at an early stage.
Eventually there will be teachers who put marks and grades via palmtop computers straight into the "electronic mark books" that come with assessment software. Bromcom's use, initially for registration, of small computers radio-linked to the office is an indication of how this sort of development might develop in future.
* BETT CONNECTIONS
Bromcom Computers stand 125
Key Solutions RM Ltd stand 215
SIMS Ltd stand 140