Technical Support in Schools (Irish Style)

We all know that primary schools are underfunded. We all know that the government pays for about 60% of the actual costs of running primary schools through capitation and ancillary grants. We all know that parents have to make up the rest of the costs of schooling their children through cake sales and voluntary contributions.

In most schools, all their Interactive Whiteboards have not been funded by the Department of Education. Right now, they’re buying us projectors and laptops, which many schools have already got thanks to parents’ fundraising. So it comes as no surprise to me that parents have been asked yet again to fundraise in order that schools should receive technical support.

In the UK, according to the Tipperary Institute of Technology only 20% of schools’ ICT budgets go on hardware. 34% of the budget goes on technical support. I think that this is about right. We shouldn’t be concentrating so much on hardware. However, in Ireland, the ICT budget for anything except hardware is zero.

At the CESI conference yesterday, we were given a talk about technical support (I won’t shoot the messenger because I think he’s one of the good ones) and the message from the NCTE is that we should ask parents to fundraise for technical support.

A point that was made by the presenter was that it might be difficult to ask parents to fundraise for something non-concrete, like tech support. Unfortunately, parents already fundraise for non-concrete things. Adding technical support to the voluntary contribution, I feel, would go down as well as asking parents to pay for the school’s electricity…. oh wait… they already do that.

Barry O’Sullivan from Cisco systems, one of the companies involved in the Smart Schools initiative, recommended to the Sunday Times that parents could take part in the scheme by fundraising. If the Smart Schools Investment team wanted to really help schools and children, they should have “done an uber-Eircom” and donated a good server, a load of client PCs and projectors to every school in the country. Seeing as so many of these clients end up being resold to schools as “refurbs” for sometimes exorbitant prices, I think this gesture of goodwill would have been much more acceptable to schools. Schools, I’m sure, would be very proud to announce their donations from their multinational partners and encourage their community to support these businesses. It would also be an investment from these companies rather than an expense as their employees of the future will have had excellent experience of their products.

This would have left Minister O’Keeffe a lot of his €150m budget for ICT, for a network of support teams around the country – say through Education Centres. These techie people would have access to every school server through VPN and could make sure everything was ticking over nicely. Should a big problem occur, there could be a call-out service to schools. I can’t imagine this system would cost much more than €2-3m per annum, based on 4 full-time technicians per education centre.

It would also leave Batt O’Keeffe a few more million euros to pay for curriculum content, which could be accessible by everyone in the country. There is little to no government initiated curriculum content in this country yet we have several brilliant educational software developers, e.g. Edware, Learning Horizons and Flúirse. Why aren’t these companies given money to make the content teachers, parents and pupils need? Why is it that it’s the textbook companies who are again leading us in how to teach? As good as their stuff is, it’s not going to be free to schools. I would estimate that if Batt O’Keeffe gave 50 software developers €50,000 each for two years to work full-time creating digital content, that would be the best €5m spent ever.

Until then, I guess we’ll just have to add another cake sale to the calendar or let our new laptops and projectors die as we wait for a “projector lightbulb replacement” procurement procedure.

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