Education and Science Minister Mary Hanafin TD (pictured) is to commit €18m to primary and post-primary schools to help them prepare their data networks for the arrival of broadband next year. Siliconrepublic.com has also learned that the education sector is anxiously awaiting the approval in the forthcoming Budget of an ambitious three-year plan to upgrade computers in every school in the country that could cost €150m.
The investment is understood to be a response to concern that despite plans to kit out every school in the country with broadband, many of these schools have inadequate data networks in place and lack vital expertise in managing data networks as well as key technologies such as spam filtering and virus protection.
It is understood that a large proportion of primary schools in Ireland have no physical networking while the majority of post-primary schools with data networks require upgrades and extensions to include vital facilities such as science labs.
It is understood the plan is to create and expand primary and post-primary schools’ data networks during the months of December and January.
The investment by Hanafin is in addition to a separate €18m investment by IBEC and the Department of Communications, Marine and Natural Resources in kitting out every school in the country with a minimum of 500Kbps and a maximum of 2Mbps in time for the start of the 2005 school year under the Broadband for Schools Initiative. Under this initiative, IBEC member companies are contributing €15m while the Government contributes €3m.
In a statement Hanafin said: “The Government’s plan to deliver broadband to classrooms all over the country presents a real opportunity to enhance the potential of ICT as an educational resource across the curriculum. It is part of our commitment to ensure that every child gets the chance to learn with and become skilled in digital technologies. Computer networks in schools with high-speed broadband connectivity promise to be a significant resource through which teachers and students alike can enjoy the benefits of such access.
“I am arranging for the National Centre for Technology in Education (NCTE) to engage with equipment and service providers in the industry to determine and secure best pricing options for schools in using this funding. The NCTE will advise school authorities on a range of options and economies available to them so as to ensure that best value for money is obtained,” Hanafin added.
In an interview with siliconrepublic.com Jerome Morrissey, director of the NCTE at Dublin College University, described Hanafin’s investment as “timely and necessary”.
He elaborated: “Very few primary schools have networks in place. While most-post primary schools have networked just their computer rooms there is an urgent need to upgrade these networks and to extend them to specialist classrooms and to other areas of learning within schools. There was a huge response by schools in September to an announcement by the Department of Education and Science (sent by letter in June) that limited funding was available for school networking if schools applied.
“The grants will enable schools to get on with this work as soon as possible. It is necessary preparation for the reception of broadband services that will be provided to all schools next year.”
Morrissey said that the NCTE is currently compiling a database that will be accessible via its website of all network and computer services suppliers as part of a county-by-county index to make it easier for schools to find suppliers. “The NCTE will be in immediate contact with service providers and equipment suppliers to build a locally accessed inventory of service providers and will work to ensure that schools receive appropriate and high-standard services at optimum pricing levels. Special advice and guidance on installing school networking has already been issued to all schools.”
Morrissey explained that a further plan to link every school in the country onto a managed single network through the distribution of special routers. “These routers will be bought by the State – out of the €18m invested by the Department of Education – and will provide a closed loop, protected by firewalls and anti-spam filters, that all the schools can communicate through. This aspect of the project could cost up to €4m.”
Responding to questions about a proposed €150m computers for schools investment expected to be approved in the forthcoming Budget, Morrissey said: “This is subject to the approval of a policy statement and approval in the next budget. Many schools in this country are working off computer at least five years old and running on old operating systems such as Windows 95. This is not acceptable. To fund a three-year policy to upgrade computers in every school in the country would cost at least €150m.”
By John Kennedy