School plan is to build, not demolish

15 May 2008 View Comments
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Tim Byles
Byles: It is a great time to be working in IT and in Building Schools for the Future

Following scathing criticism from IT managers of the £45bn Building Schools for the Future (BSF) project, Computing spoke with Tim Byles, chief executive of the scheme’s operator, Partnerships for Schools, to get his response.

What stage is the project at and what is it doing?

We are now dealing with about half the local authorities in England, looking critically at the quality of education and how we can improve standards.

Further reading

We are also in consultation for the second half of BSF, looking at the balance between whole local authority areas and focusing more on the needier pockets within these.

Why do you think people are being so critical of the IT aspects?

Where there is already a well-established system some people are raising concerns. But BSF is not about taking things away.

There are also some fears that managed services could take away schools’ ability to run themselves. Managed services are in many cases providing higher standards and a much broader service.

It is not surprising that people are asking: “What does that mean for me?” But BSF is about engaging people positively. It is not a big national programme that has to fit into a specific shape.

There are concerns that BSF will stifle IT innovation and create a one-size-fits-all model. How would you respond to this?

We are aiming to create a structured way of managing schools, building on what is already there locally, and funding can be used to add to this. We are keen to build, not sweep away.

We are explicitly saying that we want innovation – we are in the business of educational transformation; this is not a bricks and mortar project.

We are looking at how to draw in disaffected people through wider facilities and improve the environment to assist learning. We want to engage and inspire young people and give them the tools to take responsibility for their learning in ways they enjoy.

How can schools ensure that they are properly consulted?

Proper consultation is important. I introduced changes here and we moved towards a strategy for change.

I am quite sure that consultation did not happen as comprehensively as it should have done in the early stages, and it is a big priority for the future.

I would encourage all schools to make sure they participate and it is incumbent for local authorities to make sure they are invited to do so. We are actively engaged in conferences and seminars, including a specialist one for IT.

There is lots of interest and a pretty consistent programme of consultation that allows people to get involved at an early stage. We need to tune what we do to what is appropriate locally.

How will BSF affect the career development of IT managers in education?

With more authorities starting to think about BSF, opportunities are broadening.

For example, local authorities are starting to look at cross-authority solutions and I see that as a pretty healthy development. It is really a great time to be working in IT and in BSF.

What is modern technology doing for standards in education?

It is providing more facilities and convenience to pupils and more information to parents through features such as registration using swipe cards and cashless cards that store data on what children have eaten for lunch.

It is up to the schools to have the systems they want. We want to use the technology to assist pastoral care as well as education – – an aim that is in line with the Every Child Matters agenda.

School systems should eventually connect directly with wider information systems and allow records to be easily passed along when children change schools. These can be shared confidentially, preventing endless form filling.

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BSF infrastructure at Forest Hill Secondary School in Lewisham, London

  • Central server farm based off-site in Portsmouth – supports storage and backup services and will eventually serve all schools in the London Borough of Lewisham.
  • Secure network with voice over IP – allows teachers to make free external and internal calls and contact the helpdesk directly.
  • Interactive whiteboards in many classrooms, a laptop for every teacher and one PC for every two children, but Lewisham plans to provide more.
  • Managed learning environment – allows teachers to introduce differentiated learning and target each child at their appropriate level. Also gives teachers access to all data on children from when they start to year 11 – soon to be extended to the sixth form.
  • Virtual learning environment – allows children to access classroom-based learning resources outside lesson time, as well as work on and submit assignments online, and have them marked and returned online.

“This is the first time we have been able to use this level of infrastructure,” said Tom Cooper, schools improvement officer for IT at the London Borough of Lewisham.

“In the past we have had systems that are inferior to the commercial sector, but this is towards the leading edge,” he said.

“We are really excited about the difference this is making in schools.”

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