Steve Smith, former deputy headteacher at a technology college and now business development director for education at ICT specialist Ramseys, looks at the technological challenges and opportunities that extended service schools present

In the last few years there has been a huge demand on schools for rapid, transformational change. Consequently, secondary schools have been faced with a proliferation of new initiatives, of which extended service schools is one.

According to the DCSF, extended schools provide a range of activities and services often beyond the school day, ‘to help meet the needs of its students, their families and the wider community’. The true impact that extended services are expected to have on schools is reflected in the unprecedented government investment of £840m up to 2008.

As part of the government’s attempt to bridge the digital divide and develop an e-competent population, schools are actively being encouraged to extend their ICT provision beyond their own walls. The ways in which this can be done fall into four main areas and will of course vary from school to school depending on factors such as school size or location:

  • Increasing access for students – ie student intranet, student access before and after school, laptop schemes.
  • Offering community access before/during/after the standard school day – ie ‘cyber café,’ evening courses.
  • Holding community courses and providing community internet access  – ie online community conversations, ‘drop-in’ facilities.
  • Linking the school with individual homes – ie networking the home, family ‘ICT’ literacy.

The advantages of extending a school’s ICT provision are widely recognised and many groups including the schools themselves, pupils, parents, families, older/younger than school-age children, and local communities are already realising the benefits.

Strengthened commitment
Better integration is achieved with the community when services to local residents are improved. Furthermore, strengthening parent commitment and engagement often leads to an improvement in student abilities, which ultimately creates a more skilled and prosperous community. Some schools in the UK are already providing extended services. For those schools that have yet to embark on this journey, increasing the range of services generates technological issues and gives rise to the question of whether existing school systems are able to cope with these demands.

The future of ICT in schools is already an incredibly complex area because technology is developing so rapidly. This complexity will increase when systems have to cope with more users, different requirements and levels of authority, fluctuations in usage times, various technologies, security issues and staff training considerations.

Through the implementation of extended schools, the educational landscape of the future will be reshaped. In today’s society, schools are generally sized to accommodate 100% of students for 7.5 hours each day throughout term time along with a small number of community users.

This pattern of usage, which has become routine for many, will gradually change as extended service schools begin to emerge. In contrast, this new type of school may actually accommodate fewer students as some learn away from the school building in work placements or at home, allowing for further community use and off-site provision. This in turn will help breakdown the barriers that are often encountered between schools and local communities.

Extended and ‘full service’ schools will also bring multi-agencies together such as social services, health service, police, youth service and others. Therefore health workers, GPs and other professionals based in school campuses along with community users will become an increasingly common sight. All will require access to ICT facilities before, during and after the school day, so it is essential that ICT provision is sophisticated enough to support and respond to these changes.

Demand for sophistication
The library resource centre (LRC), a facility common to schools across the country, highlights the complexity that extended schools face in terms of technology. In extended schools, access control systems increase from allowing entry to students, staff and governors to admitting several user groups. However, the question of ‘who comes and goes and when’, varies considerably throughout the day. Community users, for example, may not be permitted entry to the LRC while students attend breakfast club meetings. Instead authorisation may be restricted to after standard school hours or during weekends.

Computers in the LRC will be accessible to many users – students of any age, teachers, support staff, other professionals, community learners, and even parents wishing to view their children’s work, all of whom will have different requirements. Therefore appropriateness in terms of look, feel and content must adjust according to these identities.

From a security viewpoint, the need for further precautions is heightened when community users enter schools during standard hours. Therefore systems must be sophisticated enough to permit wide-ranging entry to the LRC, while denying community users access to ‘private’ areas of the campus, with entry to these areas restricted to students and staff.

It is common to apply time constraints to access control across the campus. This could involve applying free entry policies up to nine o’clock and incorporating a ‘lock down’ approach thereafter, with access only through the main reception.

Tying access control to cards or biometric data will serve many purposes. For instance, it registers and records student attendance, allows purchase of food at the cafeteria, enables students to book on to school trips and permits students to collect their work from printers around the school. These systems will be controlled through the same identity management applications and therefore must be capable of instant update. Similarly the outputs from these disparate systems need to be instantly visible to authorised individuals over the web from any internet-connected device.

Appropriate interfaces
The ‘view’ presented to the user should adjust according to identity, and permissions controlling what areas the user sees and the software available must reflect age and generic user type.

Interfaces must be usable by people of all ages. Adult learners do not want to be patronised by interfaces or content aimed at very young learners. Thus, appropriateness in terms of look, feel and content must be generated automatically at log-on through policies and profiles. For schools to provide the best possible user experience, this must be achieved without complexity, securely and, above all, quickly – quite a challenging task!

The ‘behind the scenes’ area is equally as important. Systems that protect and improve speed for users must also prevent access to inappropriate sites. To be truly effective, however, systems must be able to release sites that instinctively schools would wish to ban for certain ‘trusted’ users while ensuring inaccessibility to others.

This may seem like quite a bizarre request, but some sixth-form students may need access to websites promoting racial or religious hatred, extremist political messages or holocaust denial in the course of their studies. It would be inconceivable to allow more impressionable minds to soak up such radical views.  Therefore, the sophistication of the caching and filtering technologies needed to flawlessly perform such tasks is considerable, as are the operational policies and procedures that underpin them. For vulnerable students to be protected, systems must operate perfectly at all times.

Financial considerations
After staff and building costs, ICT equipment and software is the biggest spend for schools, so costs are an important area to consider. With an increase in usage, schools can expect to incur additional costs. Although these will be marginal and overall schools should experience improved value for money, consideration should be given to where the increased costs may be incurred. This will include areas such as the hardware/software/peripherals required, demands on consumables such as paper and printers, an increased usage of utilities, and a heightened need for repairs or maintenance.

Perhaps the most important piece of advice for schools to consider is to work with a flexible supplier and not take a blanket approach to extended services. Managed service providers will generally factor the maintenance cost implications and general wear and tear into proposals, ensuring schools are fully aware in advance of related costs.

21st-century education

Educational establishments across the UK are facing rapidly changing and ever more complex technological challenges as ICT continues to become increasingly integrated and revolutionary. The 21st-century learning environment will see teachers, parents, students and local communities empowered by technology as it revolutionises the teaching and learning process.

Under various government initiatives, state-of-the-art learning centres will be created to inspire users for decades to come and provide facilities that entire communities can benefit from. For instance through the emergence of extended schools, the education sector will experience a significant transformation and by 2010 schools will be at the hub of the local community. However, to ensure the transition to extended schools is effective, technological implications must be considered. As the complexity of school organisation increases and system demands change, it is essential that the technology needed to support this becomes increasingly sophisticated.

This article first appeared in Secondary Headship – November 2007