The following is a guest post from Gerald Haigh.
In the course of writing about technology in education I’ve met and interviewed a lot of school network managers. All of them have impressed me by their ability to thread their way through the varying pressures of fast moving curriculum and inspection expectations, rapid technological change, marginal budgets and the vagaries of ageing infrastructures.
Along the way I’ve been particularly interested to observe how the role has changed, particularly in its relationship to school leadership and strategic planning. In fact, in June 2010 I blogged here about the position as I then saw it:
Further reading: Do Network Managers and Teachers have to clash?
Now, I want to expand on that earlier blog, and discuss how things have changed. I draw heavily on the many discussions I have had on the topic over the years with wise professionals much more knowledgeable than me, including most recently Simon Rowlands, IT manager at Sale Grammar School, and Kevin Sait, Head of IT Strategy at Wymondham High Academy. I chatted to both of them after I had decided to write the blog, and their influence will be obvious to the many who know their work.
Ten years or so ago – and this is just my impression; feel free to disagree – the pace and direction of ICT policy in a school was set by school leaders, often advised by a specialist ICT teacher. The job of the network manager – in effect a senior technician – was to pronounce on whether the policy was even possible, and if so, how it could be achieved.
In some cases this was a recipe for friction, because (let it be whispered) there were some network managers whose default position was, ‘We can’t do that.’
Maybe there weren’t many of those, but it would be dishonest to pretend they didn’t exist. As recently as 2011, in a schools blog post, we reported a conversation on this subject with Paul Hynes, who was then Programme Lead for New Technology at the Specialist Schools and Academies Trust. Paul’s concern was with the number of technical staff who did not have the means to systematically update their professional knowledge.
“Consequently you can find dysfunctional teams. They block suggestions and ideas with technical language that heads don’t understand.”
(Paul had actually sat in on meetings and seen this happening.)
To be fair, they were at least partly encouraged in this by the school leaders who were content to leave it all to the experts.
‘Computers?’ They would say, with an airy gesture. ‘Oh you’ll have to see our Mr Geekster. I leave all that stuff to him, ha, ha!’
But, arguably even where network teams are knowledgeable and responsive, and head teachers are disposed to listen, that may still not be enough. Real progress in the development of a school’s ICT policy requires not just technical support but genuine active partnership. As Simon Rowlands of Sale Grammar puts it,
“The IT manager and the head of curriculum ICT have to work together. The vision isn’t just led by one person.”
Simon’s remark took me back to my visit to Darrick Wood School last Autumn where I discovered just how essential to a school’s progress a pro-active network team can be. There, I met network manager Mike Slater and his team who have been working alongside teachers to introduce OneNote in the classroom and been instrumental in working towards a one-to-one device policy:
“We made the decision to do that about two years ago… We believe it’s the future. Each department has an e-learning co—ordinator and we went to them with the vision.”
That’s a highly significant phrase, I’d say, coming from a network manager – ‘we went to them with the vision.’
Today’s educational technology professionals – the Mike Slaters, Kevin Saits, Simon Rowlands and the many like them – are a new breed, connected nationally, even globally, with a sharing community of like-minded peers. They keep abreast of developments, understand the characteristics of various devices, know the capabilities of their school infrastructure, and have a feel for the professional, personal and technical issues around technological implementation. Even the best of school leaders simply do not have time to cover all those bases – but as good leaders they know that perfectly well, and are ready to work on equal terms with the network manager, planning ways of trialling, piloting and researching the practicalities which underpin the vision. The consequences of not building that partnership have been visible over the years not least in the steady stream of agonised cries posted by suffering IT people in the ‘Edugeek’ forums. (Because I went to a Church primary school, and attended Sunday school, I always think, at this point of the chorus that goes, ‘The foolish man built his house upon the sand….’)
The question that’s begged here, of course, is how the network manager can have the time, space and status to live up to the strategic role, given the never-ending demands of network firefighting. Part of the answer to that is down to recognition of the role by school leadership. As Kevin Sait says,
“It goes back to the senior leadership valuing the technical team.”
At the same time, the network manager can play a part in safeguarding their position by building an organisation with defined responsibilities. Simon Rowlands believes in the provision of an electronic helpdesk, together with a firm policy that all technical queries go to the helpdesk and not to individual technical staff.
Simon also has an administrator who deals with all parental enquiries – because he’s been instrumental in engaging parents with their children’s learning via Capita’s Sims Learning Gateway, use of which by parents has grown from 25 to 92 percent in a year and a half.
“The network manager is not just there for staff and students; it’s important to include the parents.”
Perhaps the single biggest game changer not just for technical staff but for educational technology generally, has been the arrival of the Cloud. Services like Office 365 and Microsoft Azure have relieved school IT teams of huge amounts of routine support work. This year’s BETT announcement that Capita’s widely used SIMS Management Information System is available cloud-hosted by Microsoft ‘Azure’ is just one example of which way this particular wind is blowing.
This YouTube video shows Graham Cooper, Head of Strategy at Capita SIMS, announcing the partnership at BETT.
Pessimists may see the Cloud as a threat to technicians’ job security. The optimists, by contrast, realise that removing routine work gives the network team more space and opportunity to focus less on devices and software and more on how technology can support learning. There can also be significant cost saving if servers are moved into the Cloud.
The proviso here is that every member of the team should have the opportunity to keep abreast of developments, be appropriately qualified, and prepared for each development as it appears. Both Wymondham High and Sale Grammar are heavily committed to the latest Microsoft technologies including Office 365 [available to students and teachers at no cost] and are able to ensure that technical staff have access to the relevant Microsoft courses and qualifications. At Wymondham, which is an IT Academy, the progression includes students, some of whom who become valuable members of the IT team. The clear expectation at a school like Wymondham is that good technicians, like good teachers, will develop and move on to posts elsewhere, carrying globally recognised Microsoft qualifications.
(SIMS schools also have access to Capita’s course on The Role of the School Network Manager)
Up to now, there’s been a sense that some school leaders, perhaps naturally given the immediacy of the pressures on them, have prioritised teacher CPD at the expense of support staff, including the network team. In the long term that could turn out to be false economy. Only time will tell.
Meanwhile, it’s good to be reminded that even the most far-sighted and strategically-minded of network managers are also careful to mention the need keep focussed on what, in the end, every teacher needs, every day, which is technology that turns on every morning and works, on demand, every time. That, after all, has to be starting point for everything else.