March Blog by Wendy Haigh, School Application Officer
As one of the newer members of the School Applications Team I enjoy coming to work each morning as every day is different, and there's still so much to learn. The other team members aren't bad either!
In quieter periods, a typical day can involve answering helpdesk calls and updating documentation, but more recently I've been busy setting up and testing the new SIMS FMS Private Funds process.
I was taken on for my Finance background and am so pleased to be heading up this new service.
This has come about as a result of us not supporting School Cash Office (SCO) from the end of March 2018, so we had to ensure we could provide schools with a similar, if not better, alternative.
The beauty of the Private Funds service is that it uses an FMS database. So any schools currently using Finance 6, which is all our SCO users, will be familiar with the screens and processes, meaning they can hit the ground running and not have to waste time learning a new system when time is so precious to them. It's also a much cheaper option as there are no additional licence fees.
It was great to see a process through from design to implementation. There's a lot of work involved in the background before we get to the finished product, but it's a process I've thoroughly enjoyed doing, and one I can call my own.
I split the process into two stages. Setting up the system is the first stage and the one School Apps Officers will carry out at the school. This is the one off tasks required to get the new blank database ready for the Schools to be able to use on a day to day basis. The second stage is the daily running of the system, much like the existing FMS database that schools already use for their Public Funds, but with the added difference of incorporating ParentPay income in to the process.
I started off with a new blank FMS database in our test system, setting it up with all the core/basic details needed for day to day working, documenting the process as I went along, making tweaks to streamline and refine it.
When the test database was complete, I ensured at least half the team also tried out the new process following my documentation, making sure it made sense and was easy to follow, and most importantly, making sure it worked as expected and that I'd not missed out any vital steps. Full and comprehensive testing is essential before it gets anywhere near the schools!
I wrote separate documents for each of the two stages. The first document is for our team and details the one off set up tasks, and the second document details the day to day processes. This is the one we leave with the schools. It is particularly handy as a reminder for School Staff, but also Central schools who haven't held a bank account of their own before will benefit from the sections such as Bank Reconciliation and possibly Petty Cash as these are tasks that County Hall always carry out for them with their Public Fund.
We've had a couple of schools sign up to the new service already, both quite different. One a Cheque Book High School, the other a Central Primary School. One uses ParentPay, and the other doesn't. One used to use SCO and the other doesn't. So you can see how adaptable/versatile it is.
We really believe it is a great alternative to the existing system. And because it uses a system schools are already familiar with, it will be like putting on your favourite woolly cardigan. We can't wait to get out to more schools and show them how beneficial this will be.
Find out more about the SIMS FMS Private Funds Database Service here
December Blog by Lawrence Hunt, School Technician
Many of our customers rely on our BTLS technicians to support their ICT, who provide an invaluable service keeping things running smoothly. In this light hearted edition of our monthly BLOG we catch-up with Lawrence Hunt on his busy schedule helping schools with their ICT.
A Day In The Life...
Most days are two-visit days. I'll get to the first school just after nine - before nine, there's three hundred children trying to enter the building, teachers are all taking registers, the office is dealing with the kids who aren't coming in - everyone's busy. Plus parking's a nightmare.
So I get there a few minutes later, when everything's calmed down.
First up, find the list of problems this morning holds, which will have been written down somewhere. Not all the problems though - some will have been considered "too small" to write down, and whatever the "Crisis of the Day" is, it won't be in there.
There's always someone who knows what the priority should be. Find that person, and discover the Crisis of the Day. Beware! If there is no Crisis, this means it hasn't happened yet and will crop up fifteen minutes before I'm supposed to leave.
Next step is to find "my" computer. Most schools have one - a PC in a library or the staff room or somewhere quiet and out-of-the-way. It's normally an older unit, but that doesn't matter - this computer is just the terminal through which I will connect to the server.
Site checks first - pop open the backup utility and check last night's logs. This is my first job because in the event that something breaks, it's good to know there's a fall-back position. I'll resolve any problems I find and then check the server console.
Most manufacturers provide a management console for their servers. This is a piece of software, usually browser-based, that reports on the hardware health of the unit - drive status, overheat warnings, that sort of thing.
UPS (uninterruptable power supply) status is next, if they have one; this is basically a big heavy battery that'll keep the server going for about four hours in the event of a power cut.
At this point, I can start working through the school's jobs. Typically, most of these are configuration changes and minor edits to server settings, with a soupçon of never-before-seen problems, like laptops that will only connect to Wi-Fi in one room, or computers that will only accept Dell-branded keyboards, or printers that scanned last week but not now, even though nothing has changed.
After what feels like forty minutes, I'll realise I've been there three hours and it's time to leave. This is the perfect moment for the Crisis of the Day to spring upon me, right when you're relaxed.
Fortunately, I'm not alone. At all times, an entire legion of senior techs, engineers, managers and the staff of other teams stand ready at the end of the phone, able to help me solve the Crisis of the Day.
Once I'm out, I'll write down what I did. This matters because I'm going to have to write a Site Visit Confirmation email, and they're much more useful if you can remember what you did when you were there. Now, time to eat lunch and code up the satnav - we're rolling out.
The afternoon school is usually a lot like the morning school, except that the Crisis of the Day will be inventively different. The varied and ever-changing nature of the Crisis of the Day is one of the most challenging and enjoyable aspects of my job. It's always something new, and there's something refreshing about fixing a problem you'd never heard of until today.
The day of a technician can cover a lot of other challenges, like project work and paperwork and desk work, but ultimately our job is to support the schools, to help them achieve their ICT goals and improve the education of children. It can be a towering task, but the satisfaction of a job well done is a daily companion.
September Blog by Helen Pedder, Senior Project Manager
Summer is always a busy time for me within the Education Service as the closure of schools for the holidays is a key time for our major projects.
One of the responsibilities of the County Council is to provide the right number of school places across the county and ensure its schools are in good condition. To achieve this the County Council has a capital programme to build new school buildings and to extend and upgrade existing school buildings. As part of the Education Service I have worked in partnership with LCC Property group over a number of years and the team are now working on our 50th major school project.
The capital school projects can span a number of years and involve a lot of collaboration with many parties. Working with LCC to develop the schools technology requirements to enable the design and installation of ICT for the schools new accommodation.
ICT changes required by the schools can include upgrading schools current infrastructure as well as identifying what new technologies are available that would help schools teach the changing curriculum in the fluid environment of ICT.
Working alongside the building contractors to agree for example locations of power/data requirements and room layouts ensure the vision of the schools ICT is transferred into the physical building so that the environment for the children is filled with well-placed and functioning equipment.
As the end of the summer approaches and building activities come to a close we have a limited time to ensure the ICT is fully functioning for the school to open for the start of the autumn term so the summer period can be very challenging but very rewarding to see the schools up and running on time.
Throughout this year we have completed projects at Weeton Primary School, Grange Primary School, Euxton Primrose Hill, Colne Lord Street and the Acorns School Ormskirk. This summer we have been busily working on projects at Trinity Primary School, Holy Cross High School, Larches Short Stay School and St Georges Primary School.
As these projects can take a considerable length of time to come to fruition, working collaboratively ensures that we are able to meet the school's expectations and priorities, in providing the right solution for their particular situation. Whilst there are always challenges to be overcome, working closely with school colleagues to turn these challenges into opportunities is one of the areas of my role from which I get the most satisfaction; ultimately knowing the work we are doing will benefit both current and future pupils is also reward in itself. So, here's to the next 50!
Here in the Education Solution Design team our work is focused on all the elements that make up the designs for the wide range of products and services that BTLS offers to its school customers.
Of the many areas that occupy our time each month, two of the most significant and key recent activities were planning for the migration of the Education Firewall and the upgrading of the Education filtering system.
Our existing firewalls have provided reliable and efficient service for the last eight years but are now nearing the end of their useful life, and need to be retired over the next few months. BTLS Education Services have purchased replacement firewalls from the supplier Forcepoint, and we are currently working on the plan to migrate to these.
Large scale changes like these require detailed planning, skills and expertise across many teams; working with me on this project are a team of designers, architects, dedicated project managers and representatives from Forcepoint themselves.
One of the first activities was to examine all the existing rules in the current firewall. These rules allow or block the types of content that are allowed through the firewall and enable us to manage what material is or isn't appropriate. We identified all the rules that are no longer being used and marked them so that they are not replicated in the new firewall. This let us establish the new firewall in the most secure configuration possible whilst providing the access that schools require.
Further information on the Forcepoint firewall is available on the Forcepoint website
We also upgraded the filtering system too, building on last year's upgrade that brought SSL filtering to schools. We have implemented an upgraded hardware and software solution that provides much greater resilience and capacity.
Lightspeed (the company who provide our filtering system) released the newest version of their filtering software, named Longhorn, on 31 March 2017. This version brought in further stability and reliability improvements with better reporting and integration with Office 365. Once this version has been tested we will be applying it to the upgraded filtering hardware and releasing it to schools.
Further information on Longhorn is available on the Lightspeed website
As we are all aware technology moves and changes so quickly, and one of the main challenges our design team faces is ensuring that the products and services we provide reflect these technological advances to the benefit of our customers. Responding to these changes certainly keeps us busy but our team, and Education Services as a whole, are committed to providing the best services we can to all our school customers.
As a Business Relationship Manager, one of my responsibilities is being a friendly point of contact for our customers when they have enquiries about our Service Level Agreements or are interested in our products and services. As a consequence, I am also fortunate enough to meet with our customers on a regular basis.
Most recently, I was able to head up to Cumbria and, even luckier, it was on one of the few sunny days we have had so far this year! Whilst driving through our region, I reflected upon the diversity which can be found in our schools; from tiny rural primaries to the largest secondary academy sites. Although vastly different in scale, they all share an aspiration to provide the best possible learning outcomes for their pupils - our hope is that we can help to facilitate this.
One of the activities which the BRM team particularly enjoy is to meet new Headteachers shortly after they are appointed so that they gain an understanding of our services and meet their assigned link BRM. It is an opportunity to think about the school's aspirations for ICT development. Whether new to the school or the region, the feedback we have had from Headteachers has been extremely positive.
We don't just restrict these service reviews to new Headteachers; we are happy to meet with new Business Managers or arrange general service reviews at any time should they be required. We also attend site meetings when schools are considering ICT projects. We always look forward to schools contacting us to discuss their aspirations; please make sure that you get in touch if we can be of assistance!
More than ever, we find that we support schools working in cluster groups – be they formal arrangements such as those found in Multi-Academy Trusts or local clusters. In either case, such groups may find it useful to have a BTLS representative at one of their cluster meetings to discuss our services. It's certainly an opportunity which we look forward to, and schools may find it helpful to have us present. As always, please get in touch if you would like to explore this option.
The purpose of my Cumbria trip was to attend one of the regular CASBAM Meetings as a sponsor. Cumbria certainly embodies the diversity which I referenced earlier –a huge range of schools with significantly differing pupil numbers and profiles. I was struck by the sense of camaraderie and unity despite these differences and the uncertainty surrounding budgets. There was a sense of positivity in the room at rising to the challenge of doing more with less. I look forward to attending future events and tip my hat to everyone involved with the increasingly complex task of managing our schools!
Finally, it is always interesting when we get a request which is a bit removed from the 'norm' (if there is such a thing)! My colleague Andy Griffin was recently fortunate enough to be involved in an unusual request from one of our schools. In this case, he helped facilitate our support for a Skype session between the school and the Speaker of the House of Commons, John Bercow. The session was a great success and I know that Andy found it rewarding to be able to facilitate this with excellent support from our technical teams and expertise from our on-site technician, Suhayl.
That's it from me. Remember, if you would like to talk about any other unusual requests or, indeed, any aspect of our range of services please get in touch with the BRM team!
For my first blog I'd like to introduce you to the wonderful world of the School Application Team. I decided I was going to give you an insight into a typical day but the truth is there is no such thing! Each day is different, there is always something new to be working on and opportunities to learn and develop our skills.
Our days are spent in a variety of ways including creating documentation and resources, support desk duties, delivering consultancies and SIMS User Groups, Beta testing, planning upgrades and patch roll outs, updating our skills and knowledge and supporting other LA/BTLS teams.
We also represent BTLS and Lancashire schools at events such as the SIMS Northern User Group (SNUG), Capita update seminars and User Acceptance Testing exercises (UATs). These are really important as they allow us to fully prepare our schools for any forthcoming changes to the software and/or data requirements. We also get to contribute to the development of the software so we can ensure our schools' views are incorporated in any developments.
My favourite activity is Beta testing; three times a year we get early access to the next upgrade of SIMS, FMS and Discover ahead of their general release to schools. I love Beta testing (even after 13 years of doing this role), as it's always exciting to see what developments Capita have introduced and then we look at how the team can help our schools make the most of these new features. I always make it a personal challenge to see what I can break in the Beta release! Joking aside Beta testing ensures we can identify any issues we find with the new upgrade prior to its release, the team feed these back to Capita and the issues are usually rectified before they hit our schools in the main release.
I also enjoy service desk duty, which I still undertake from time to time. As you may be aware we operate a very busy service desk where we support our schools with a variety of school application based queries. Each member of the team is rostered on Service Desk duty but they also have their own caseloads which they have to manage.
When I was a School Application Officer the most satisfying part of my role was developing close working relationships with our schools; there is a great deal of job satisfaction knowing you've made someone's day a little easier, solved that problem, created that report or shared the knowledge we have.
I hope that this, my first blog, has given you an insight into what our team does and I'd like to thank you for taking the time to read it. If you're a school that uses our service already then I can assure you that we continue to be committed to providing you with the best possible service we can. And if you've yet to see what we have to offer, then why not give one of our friendly Business Relationship Managers a call, the details can be found by clicking here.
Oh, and if you've ever wondered what those helpful voices on the end of the phone actually look like in person, then the whole team is pictured above.
Every January sees the staging of the major event in the Education Tech calendar, the British Educational Training and Technology show, more commonly know as BETT. Held at the Excel in London's Docklands, BETT has grown significantly over the years, with this year's event attended by over 30,000 visitors from 138 countries.
The show is a great way to catch up on new developments in technology and teaching with technology. The variety of stands and seminars offer something for everyone – whether classroom teacher or management staff. This year I visited with three of our solutions design team, to look out for the new and interesting and to catch up with our current suppliers. Many companies make key announcements of new products at BETT and we value getting that early insight into products and services schools may need in the future.
Over the years we've seen shows dominated by virtual learning environments, content resources, 3D printers or management information systems. This year a few things stood out – most obviously a proliferation of Virtual Reality headsets. Their application in the classroom is just starting to be explored by a few schools. At the moment the technology is expensive for most schools, so I was inspired by Discovery Education's seminar on pupils from Beatrix Potter Primary School in London using low cost tech to create their own VR experiences in their lunchtime "innovation club". Based on a smart phone and Google Cardboard the pupils were both creating and learning, while enjoying exploring the potential of this new technology.
Also creating a buzz among teachers attending the show, the STEAM section of the show was by far the busiest with lots of chances to get hands on with new ideas and technology. Lots of practical classroom applications in the Microsoft Maker Space were on show, while numerous model rocket powered cars were launched down the Bloodhound/Race for the Line stand race track. Everyone was keen to explore applications of the Pi-Top for Raspberry Pi and take the chance to join in the Coding Club. It was inspiring to see the interest and enthusiasm - we're pleased to now be able to offer Pi-Tops on our hardware catalogue.
Hardware that also caught the eye included Lenovo's Yoga Book, with its on demand keyboard and real ink stylus, and the pair of ultra-short throw interactive projectors from Epson working seamlessly together to create a 100" interactive projection on the wall.
As ever there was lots to see and not enough time to take everything in. I recommend a visit if you get the chance (but make sure you plan ahead and wear some comfy shoes, as you'll end up walking miles!). The date for your diaries for next year is 24-27 January 2018.
For Pi-Top simply type "Pi" into our BTLS product catalogue
For information on next year's show in January 2018 http://www.bettshow.com