The history of online access in UK schools is a long one. For me it started in 1976 with the introduction of an acoustic coupler linked to a phone line in the cupboard in the back of Room 41. I was, I hasten to add, a student at this time, not a teacher! You can read more about those exciting times here. From memory it was a 300baud connection, which doesn’t compare well with current day connections which can be several hundred thousand times faster. But it only had to drive a line printer, so it was ok.
Through the years to the mid to late 90’s schools existed on a dial-up diet, eventually reaching the awesome speeds of 56k baud.
Then something happened.
The World Wide Web.
For good or ill there was a recognition that schools would have to access the internet, both to operate effectively as organisations and to benefit teaching and learning. And this was a very different time. Any infrastructure changes in schools was largely considered to be the responsibility of “someone else”. And so, at this point, it started to go horribly wrong. Regional Broadband Consortia were formed to deliver the national educational internet infrastructure. Schools were, in effect, told – “Don’t worry, someone is doing this for you.”
And that was the problem. They were doing it for them. Or, as some cynics might say, “to them”. As usual with such projects an intolerable amount of time was taken up discussing just what was to be done. An intolerable amount of time was taken up in procurement exercises. An intolerable amount of time was taken up sending engineers into schools to look at power supplies and cupboards. And then an intolerable amount of time was taken up waiting for them to do, well, anything really.
Worse still was the bundling that occurred. The attempt to foist on schools bundled materials from organisations matey with the RBCs. Hands up who has used the ‘free’ services linked to their broadband connection? No, not seeing very many. But everyone had to pay for them. When you were lucky enough to receive your by then underpowered connection you were paying an arm and a leg for it so that a few schools could watch one or two Pathé news videos and a couple of ropey email accounts. Ok, we did get internet filtering. In our school it blocked access to the National Curriculum, with the message “This site is unsuitable for schools”. That’s not joke, it happened.
This process took years. During this time i worked with many schools who were chomping at the bit (no pun intended) to get access but were not even told where in the programme their school was. One of our local primaries had to wait over three years to get connected. My own personal annoyance was the lengths I had to go to so the school could enable external access to our servers – to facilitate school wide email and VPN access to in school services. This eventually required the intervention of the DfE (or whatever it was called then) on our behalf to explain to the RBC their own contract.
And where has all this got us? We still have schools with vastly underpowered internet connections. Primaries in particular are very badly served. We still have schools paying inflated prices for services they don’t use.
We now have the unbelievable situation of an RBC writing to schools in a manner that would shame a Nigerian 419 scammer, after it has blocked access to those schools to emails from a competitor organisation. My company sells stuff to schools, and we frequently are blocked in our attempts to legitimately access decision-makers in schools by those with vested commercial interests, but this shocked even me. Were I a client of this RBC I would change provider on principle.
But the bigger problem caused by the RBC approach to connectivity is this. The expertise is in the wrong place, it’s of the wrong type and there is not enough of it. The “we’ll do all this for you” approach has led to many schools having little or no internal capability when it comes to IT – this issue is particularly apparent at primary level (and that’s not a dig at primary schools, it’s a condemnation of those that have put them in that position). Where the capacity exists it is too often dedicated to looking after and protecting local servers. As I argue here, that era is over.
My advice to schools is this. Buy an internet connection, not a subscription to see old Laurel and Hardy movies. Buy twice the amount you think you need. Buy it from two different providers that have different physical routes into the school. This, I know will be hard for some smaller schools to take on. Well, here is an example of where collaboration can be beneficial. Get together with your local group of schools and organise this. Make sure you have someone in your building who understands enough about this connectivity so that you do not end up paying for old Laurel and Hardy movies instead of bandwidth.
Your need for connectivity is not going to go away. Take control and do it, rather than being done to.