For all the criticisms of the National Grid for Learning, it has made schools realise the need to network their computers. Many are planning their own or have recently installed one using grid funding.
Choosing which network to install is an extremely important decision. It sets the environment for future developments, so understanding why the school needs a network and what it will be used for should determine what is purchased.
If the aim is for PCs to share resources such as printers and Internet access, peer-to-peer networking such as RM's SchoolShare will do. If sharing applications, CDs and files is required, a server-based network, such as RM Connect, is more appropriate. RM is the market leader because of its curriculum focus, but there are other suppliers.
Stephen Freeman School in Didcot is a 400-pupil primary school that has been trying out a SchoolShare network with four WindowBox Pentium PCs and an ISDN Internet connection.
According to the headteacher, Julie Leigh, its value lies in giving pupils more access to th eir PCs. One computer per classroom does not allow sufficient hands-on experience, she says, although she feels it is still important to keep a machine in each classroom to integrate into classroom work.
Ms Leigh is impressed with RM's remote online support which, she says, has been simple and reliable. The head says she feels confident knowing that RM can take over from its Abingdon HQ if necessary.
The pupils at Stephen Freeman School are enthusiastic about the network and have undertaken a range of work, including producing artwork for a history project, designing Tudor buildings and producing a newspaper about the Spanish armada.
Schoolshare is excellent for small schools, but Stephen Freeman Primary hopes to use learning grid money to buy a server-based network with more machines. which will allow better sharing of resources. Its choice is likely to be RM, partly because of its authority's relationship with that company and because support is available from secondary schools on the Didcot partnership.
At St Leonards Middle School in Blandford, Dorset, the IT co-ordinator, Rob Wickes, was looking for an educational network that would allow the 400 children and staff to continue to work with familiar Acorn software, but also have the chance to use Windows programs. His solution was an Xemplar Matrix network, which cost pound;30,000 on top of the pound;84,000 spend on a well-equipped computer lab. The Matrix network has allowed the school to connect some of the old Acorn machines and to purchase 20 network computers, which were cost-effective at around pound;500 each. They can run Windows 3.1 applications, Acorn-specific NC and Apple software.
An IBM Netfinity PC server and an Acorn RISC PC drive the Matrix network using Winframe software. After upgrading memory from 4Mb to 8Mb, Rob Wickes says response times on the network are now good. Support is via a telephone hotline and faulty stations are replaced within a week.
Both Stephen Freeman and St Leonards schools have partly based their choice of network on their existing machines, but support is the most important factor - particularly for primary and middle schools.
While suppliers will be expected to provide this through managed services, nearby schools may prove the best way to provide support, possibly through co-operation between secondaries and their feeder primaries.
Les Watson is Dean of Learning and Information Services at Cheltenham and Gloucester College of Higher Education.