Playtime's over for RISC OS bastion in educationBy Martin Hansen. Published: 8th Jun 2004, 22:26:33 | Permalink | Printable
*byeStonar School, the small independent school in Wiltshire that is, perhaps, best known for its passion for RISC OS, has announced that it is moving over to a Microsoft Windows based system in time for the next academic year. Plans for the change are described as being 'firm' and 'well advanced' and the new machines are scheduled for installation over the coming seven week summer holiday. The boarding school, which is home for around 350 girls during term time, hopes to have its new ICT systems fully operational by September 2004.
The switch heralds a big change of heart by a school which has invested heavily, both financially and emotionally, in RISC OS since the start of the 1990s. Hardware has, as a matter of policy, been kept fully up to date and the soon to be abandoned set-up features over forty Kinetic and eighty StrongARM RiscPCs, all with RISC OS 4, all with 64M of RAM plus 2M of VRAM, and all networked via a system that has been fine-tuned to largely run itself under the guidance and watchful eye of a single 'consultant engineer', Martin Devon. For many independent schools, the Stonar system represented the set-up that they could never quite afford, and for many state schools, the system they were prevented from having. Curious at what had prompted such a momentous U-turn at the school, I decided, on behalf of Drobe, to track down Martin Devon.
He is a short, grey haired man, with a clear passion for all things RISC OS. One always likes to begin any interview by talking about the good times, and for Martin the pinnacle of his achievements at Stonar School are surprisingly recent: in April 2001, an impressive three page article in Acorn User magazine detailed the way in which RISC OS permeated the school. He was particularly proud of the fact that Stonar had been a beta tester for a Navaho internet proxy in 1996 and had been, in 1994, the first school in the south-west to install a permanent fibre-optic network. This has grown to some 4km of cabling reaching out from a central point into every academic building and boarding house on a large and sprawling site. Even as you read this, girls are using StrongARMs almost around the clock with many machines clocking up 22 hours of continual use, especially just before coursework deadlines. Typically around 100,000 A4 sheets of paper have been being printed each year by the students from packages as diverse as Ovation Pro, Fireworkz Pro, Datapower 2, Artworks, Sibelius and Easiwriter.
I explained to Martin Devon that at my own 700 pupil school school, in Shrewsbury, four full time staff are employed to keep a Microsoft focussed network operational. A further two teach ICT which, these days, in practice, largely focuses on using Word, Excel and Microsoft Internet Explorer. I was stunned to learn that Martin ran the alternative at Stonar School single-handed as a part-time job. He is particularly fond of a wonderful inspection report from 2002. This praised his achievements in teaching ICT as a core subject at GCSE with 35 percent A* grades at GCSE. At A level that year 100 percent of his students achieved A or B grades in their A level Computer Studies examinations.
My personal experiences of small independent schools trying to run a networked Windows system suggest that Stonar may be in for some difficult years ahead. One school in Shropshire last year had no email for six months and no working Internet for four. They could afford a couple of the hefty maintenance and consultancy bills a year to keep their expensive system functioning, but when a third rolled in they had to plug the financial haemorrhage by simply saying 'no more'. In a state school, the (taxpayers) money has to be found as it would be politically unacceptable for ICT to be seen to be in trouble. Eventually, as an act of charity, Shrewsbury's School's top IT guru, Mark Twells, stepped in to sort them out. Now they dare not adjust anything least the whole thing collapse once more.
Filling the void
There are many businesses and schools up and down the country whose computing expertise is largely held in the hands of one or two individuals either working in-house, or as outside consultants. When they move on, the systems they leave behind are often partially or wholly replaced soon afterwards. Sadly, this seems to be the case at Stonar School. Last year, Martin, who is a specialist in timber structures, was asked if he could develop further his software to drive computer controlled saws. With a difficult choice to make, he suddenly felt tired of fighting off the constant pressure from some staff at Stonar to opt for the Windows alternative, and he bowed out to focus his time and effort on his other area of expertise.
For those of us still keen to see RISC OS hold on to some aspect of educational computing, the years since Acorn effectively went bust have been tough. As a community we have failed to bring a native laptop to market, failed to carved out a RISC OS whiteboard market, failed to convert materials on CD-ROM, and failed to make the Internet and RISC OS really gel. New machines come with an up front price tag that attracts a critical financial controller's eye in a way that thirty consultancy fees of 300UKP spread over the year somehow do not.
The typical teacher in any school does not, actually, really care that an alternative system can be run by one part-time man on machines that just never break down. If an alternative is available that has the edge in the areas that I have mentioned, they'd rather have that. Personally, they don't pay for the background support costs and most teachers, like most computer users full stop, don't want to think too deeply when it comes to using a machine. Ultimately, if it isn't on a par, effort-wise, with writing on a board, it will end up not really being used much at all, the exceptions being the small handful of staff (to be fair, surely found in many similar schools) with a deeper interest.
To Martin's credit, Stonar School's RISC OS rendered website has functioned for a year since his departure as have the network, internet and email facilities. He is sad that the end of an era has come, and when I spoke with Martin Devon I felt strongly that he was putting a brave face on a situation that he cared deeply about. Times change. Many schools now routinely replace equipment after three years of heavy classroom use. Those 1996 StrongARM RiscPCs at Stonar have, in lasting eight years, provided an honourable and trouble free service that is well beyond what could reasonably have been expected from them when they where purchased.
It will be interesting to interview staff at Stonar in a couple of years' time to add a post script to the story of the brave little school that held out for RISC OS for so long against what the majority of schools did at the turn around the century. Will they remember their Acorn badged machine days with fondness or not? In two years' time, will any of the staff have decided, after all, to personally stick with the system that made their school quirky and different? Or will they just want to forget "the Acorn years"? Only time will tell.
Stonar school website
ROS education resources vs. ICT these days
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