When your catchment area is some 35km2 in diameter, spanning lakes, mountain ranges and more, creating a community between yourself and your feeder schools is hardly going to be easy - let alone creating a cutting-edge regional network.
Yet for Keswick School, in the heart of the spectacular Lake District National Park, overcoming obstacles is nothing new.
Keswick School (Key Stage 3 and 4) 1,000 pupils, 62 teachers
Trinity CofE School (Key Stage 2) 158 pupils, 13 teachers, in Keswick
St. Kentigerns CofE School (Key Stage 1) 146 pupils, 12 teachers in Keswick
Braithwaite CofE School (Key Stage 1 and 2) 94 pupils, 9 teachers, 3km from Keswick
Threlkeld CofE School (Key Stage 1 and 2) 73 pupils, 8 teachers, 6km from Keswick
Borrowdale CofE School (Key Stage 1 and 2) 43 pupils, 5 teachers, 13km from Keswick
Bassenthwaite CofE School (Key Stage 1 and 2) 41 pupils, 6 teachers, 10km from Keswick
Keswick School serves six feeder schools across the National Park, yet they represent just 55% of Keswick's intake. So with just 160 pupils in the largest feeder, the need for collaboration and shared practice is even more important. Despite daunting geographic challenges, some innovative thinking from the school's ICT Manager David Brown has successfully inspired the Keswick Schools' Wide Area Network (WAN) - uniting pupils, teachers and communities alike.
The concept sounds simple, yet the scale is truly daunting: by linking the computer network at Keswick School to each of the feeder schools, the team has created a single computer network providing curriculum resources to 1,600 pupils aged 4-18, plus some 150 teaching and non-teaching staff. The system is accessible through the Internet both at school, and - crucially - at home.
It sounds like a network planner's worst nightmare. But astonishingly, this vast network is managed with just one full time network manager, based at Keswick School, with a part-time technician providing ICT technical support and a weekly service visit to the primary schools.
The key factor in making this project happen is commitment: not just from the schools involved, but also from RM Education and the Broadband consortia. As Paul Horder, the primary technician, observes: "Each of the primary schools has been very brave making the leap to install a server-based network - especially when we are considering schools with less than 100 pupils".
Because of the topography of the catchment area, the mountainous ranges meant that a wireless network was not an option. Instead, the team faced up to the inevitable: without an existing broadband supply in the area, a 10Mbit/s LES2 fibre optic link would need to go in the ground along with all the effort and disruption that would result in digging up a sizeable area across West Cumbria.
Since September 2003 the network has been rolling out to each of the feeder schools, with the final school connected in May 2004. Prior to the WAN, teachers in each school would have to resolve their own ICT problems. Now, if there is a technical issue in one school, it is not just fixed at the initial school, but also at each of the other sites. This means potential issues can be identified and resolved before a school even knows there's a problem.
It is early days to report all of the teaching and learning benefits this network will bring for this community. However, several immediate benefits are already clear. These include:
The six primary schools have a RM Community Connect 3™ network server connected directly to the two Keswick School servers. The management console that makes up Community Connect 3 provides a very friendly user front end, which allows the technician to make changes quickly and easily to any one of the servers from the Keswick site. This means they can carry out virus checking on all network stations, control Internet filtering within the WAN and undertake nightly backup for all nine servers.
Across the seven sites there are 375 curriculum and management stations each operating RM Community Connect 3, Integris and Microsoft® Windows® XP software, along with RM Window Box™ curriculum software in each of the primary schools. Over 60 teachers now have laptops provided by the Laptops for Teachers scheme, which can be synchronised on connection to the network using RM Synchronise. In addition, Keswick School hosts a Microsoft® Exchange server and a caching server. The Internet and email are accessed via a 10MB/s connection, provided by the local broadband consortia, Cumbria and Lancashire Education Online.
In the short term, with the WAN now in place, the next phase is to get everyone familiar with the software and resources available. The school is looking to deliver a comprehensive training programme over the coming months to encourage all members of staff to take advantage of the resources now available. Paul hopes that as staff become more confident in using the resources, it will enable them to collaborate, share and repurpose courseware, in turn reducing the amount of time they have to spend researching, planning and creating content from scratch.
With 90% of homes having Internet access, the longer-term plan is to roll out home - school access for all pupils. Staff already have home access, and the plan is to make network resources available to pupils next year. With many pupils having to catch the bus for an hour-long journey home, most are unable to stay late after school. Online access at home will open up a whole world of possibilities.
Paul believes that the single network will prove far more resilient, reliable and robust for educational demands. With teachers confident in the technology, they can focus on utilising the ICT resources available to enrich their lessons and the learning experience.