Jess Casey: Some are top class, but most primary schools get by with low-speed internet

The internet is a vital utility, but two thirds of primary schools lag behind the minimum speed in the National Broadband Plan. Jess Casey talks to teachers whose schools enjoy high-speed internet and to some whose schools do not

Jess Casey: Some are top class, but most primary schools get by with low-speed internet

The internet is a vital utility, but two thirds of primary schools lag behind the minimum speed in the National Broadband Plan. Jess Casey talks to teachers whose schools enjoy high-speed internet and to some whose schools do not

THE majority of us know the blood-boiling frustration that tends to go hand-in-hand with slow broadband speeds.

Most of us have found ourselves in a situation at least once where our router fails us at the very moment it’s needed the most; A streamed movie starts buffering, an urgent email fails to send, a download takes seemingly forever with very little signs of progress.

But imagine this mishap happening as you are standing at the front of a class of 30-odd energetic school children, and they’re growing more and more restless every passing second as the internet stalls.

It’s a situation faced by hundreds of teachers on a daily basis in primary schools across the country.

While in recent years, high-speed broadband was rolled out across all post-primary schools, and in almost 60 special schools, primary schools still have no guarantee of connectivity.

Figures from the Department of Education show that almost 60% of all primary schools had a download speed of less than 30Mbps (megabits per second) during the 2018 to 2019 school year. A download speed of 30Mbps is the baseline speed guaranteed under the National Broadband Plan.

Almost 1,500 of these primary schools had a download speed of less than 20Mbps during the 2018 to 2019 school year, and more than 400 of these primary schools had a download speed of less than 10Mbps or less.

When it comes to the schools with the fastest broadband speeds, the majority are based in Dublin, but schools based in Kerry, Limerick, Galway, Sligo, and Tipperary all feature in the top 20.

In Kerry, 70% of primary schools have a download speed of less than 30Mbps.

In Cork, almost 55% of all primary schools have download speeds of less than 30Mbps, according to the Department of Education figures.

A further 2,282 children are in Cork primary schools that have a download speed of less than 10Mbps.

In East Cork alone, there are more than 5,500 children in primary schools with broadband speeds of less than 20Mbps. That is according to a study of the figures by local TD Sean Sherlock.

“Proper broadband is key to learning if we are to encourage learning and growth for all our school children, no matter where they live,” said Mr Sherlock. “In an age where information is vital, speed of access to the web is a critical component of learning. Those 5,502 schoolchildren are practically offline compared to their more urban counterparts.”

And while there are plans in place to provide high speed broadband to some 700 primary schools through the National Broadband Plan, including almost 80 in Cork, this will still leave many primary schools short.

Principal Pádraig Ó Breacáin in Scoil Naomh Iosaf’s computer room with second class pupils Andrea, Natasha, Faye, and Adrian.
Principal Pádraig Ó Breacáin in Scoil Naomh Iosaf’s computer room with second class pupils Andrea, Natasha, Faye, and Adrian.

In ‘Left to their Own Devices’, a recent report on the current state of play of information and communication technology (ICT) in primary schools, researcher Eemer Eivers pointed to broadband connectivity, wifi coverage, and a lack of technical support skills at primary school level.

“Providing quality connectivity to all primary school pupils should be an educational priority in its own right, not something appended as a priority to the eventual implementation of the National Broadband Plan,” Dr Eivers said.

A survey carried out by the Irish Primary Principals Network (IPPN) as recently as 2018 found that more than one third of principals who took part in the study said their school did not have a reliable and adequate internet connection.

ANECDOTALLY, student teachers embarking on teaching practice are often warned to be prepared in case they cannot access the internet as planned during a lesson, and to bring backups and printouts for each lesson, just in case.

Ryan working with teacher Karen Ward at CBS Primary School in Limerick City, the primary school with the country’s fastest internet connection. Pictures: Brendan Gleeson
Ryan working with teacher Karen Ward at CBS Primary School in Limerick City, the primary school with the country’s fastest internet connection. Pictures: Brendan Gleeson

However, broadband speeds at a primary school level are improving, and have improved significantly in within the last eight years, according to the Department of Education. A framework of 14 providers was put in place in 2017 and, to date, approximately 1,600 primary schools have download speeds of 30Mbps or greater, a spokesman for the department said in a statement.

This is almost 50% of all primary schools, compared to fewer than 100 primary schools that were on those speeds in 2012, he added.

“Services are reviewed on an ongoing basis to enhance connectivity where available, in accordance with procurement and contractual requirements.”

So, what makes a good download speed? A good download speed mainly depends on what the internet is being used for: Most broadband providers say that the speed needed by a home or a business depends on how many people will be using it, and what they use it for. plan on using it for.

For example, to send emails or check social media, a download speed of 1 to 5 megabits per second (Mbps) is ideal. To Skype someone, you need 1.5Mbps, and to stream music you need a speed of 2Mbps.

A download speed of at least 5Mbps is needed to watch a movie on Netflix, according to the streaming service. However, if someone wants to stream a movie in super-sharp ultra-HD, then they will need a download speed of at least 25Mbps. Higher speeds are also required when it comes to online gaming or downloading movies.

Jake and Cian with teacher Karen Ward, enjoying their work on the laptops at CBS Sexton Street Primary School, Limerick.
Jake and Cian with teacher Karen Ward, enjoying their work on the laptops at CBS Sexton Street Primary School, Limerick.

Upload speeds also depend on what someone uses the internet for — to upload things like pictures or attachments on emails, a speed of 3Mbps is considered sufficient, according to Switcher.ie.

And while each of these activities on their own don’t necessarily require high-speed broadband, depending on how many different people are all connecting to devices at the same time, a faster speed is needed.

If the speed doesn’t match up with the activities plus the amount of people connected, it can lead to buffering, crashing, and sluggish, or downright infuriatingly slow, downloading.

Now put these speeds in the context of a bustling, busy primary school attempting to connect multiple different devices often at the same time, for a million different uses.

Pupils might be attempting to download ebooks, or use the internet to research a project, or using an iPad or a tablet to play a maths or phonetics game. Teachers might be attempting to plan their own lessons, or using the internet to instruct pupils.

On the administration side of the house, school secretaries and principals are checking and sending emails to parents and different staff members.

OVER the last few years, there has been an explosion of very good educational online resources available to teachers, often free and readily available to use.

CBS Sexton Street Primary School in Limerick has wifi in every room and a suite of laptops that pupils such as Conor can use for projects.
CBS Sexton Street Primary School in Limerick has wifi in every room and a suite of laptops that pupils such as Conor can use for projects.

Information and communication technology (ICT) is also considered a valuable tool to help assist pupils who have learning difficulties, and for those who are struggling with a certain subject. ICT can also be helpful for pupils whose first language is not English.

Some of these teaching resources include, but are not limited to, reading and spelling aids, and multimedia programmes that pair text with audio and pictures, animations and easy-to-use interfaces.

Even something as simple as using YouTube to show a class a live performance of a song they are working on, or a piece of historical footage, can help teachers to bring their lessons even further to life.

But for schools with slow broadband, these resources cannot be accessed. Many schools contacted by the Irish Examiner did not wish to discuss their school’s situation on the record, apart from describing it as “shocking” or “abysmal”.

One Cork city primary school contacted by the Irish Examiner had a maximum download speed of 150Mbps, and an upload speed of 15Mbps during the 2018-2019 school year, according to the Department of Education figures. This made gave the primary school with upwards of 300 pupils one of the highest speeds in the county. However, broadband in the school was and is regularly “excruciatingly slow”, according to one teacher, who did not wish to be named.

“The max speed we get is about 30Mbps, but it’s regularly closer to 10. When it’s working that is. It can go at any time, and it does regularly.

“We cannot plan lessons around our broadband, because some mornings it wouldn’t even be adequate to take the rolla [school roll].”

In terms of ICT equipment, the school has several Android tablets, a number of projectors, and a suite of desktop computers.

“The desktops are about 15 years old. I’ve stopped bringing kids down to use them because I’ve spent 40 minutes trying to turn them on and they are so old all they do is crash.”

When it comes to the IT grants, they are used to cover the maintenance of the equipment the school already has, the teacher added.

“We have to be strategic in the tech we invest in, a lightbulb for a projector can cost around €300.”

CBS Sexton Street Primary School in Limerick has wifi in every room and a suite of laptops that pupils such as Adam and Malik can use for projects.
CBS Sexton Street Primary School in Limerick has wifi in every room and a suite of laptops that pupils such as Adam and Malik can use for projects.

It’s a marked difference from the experience of CBS Primary School in Limerick City, the primary school with the fastest download and upload speeds in the country. The all-boys schoolin Limerick city has a download speed of 300Mbps and an upload speed of 30Mbps.

“I wasn’t aware that we were the fastest in the country, but I was aware that we have exceptionally fast broadband in the school,” CBS principal Denis Barry told the Irish Examiner.

“The last school I was in, we had maybe 2 or 3Mbps download speeds, and an upload speed of 1Mbps.

“Speeds like that made it very difficult to use the iPads that we had, but ours now in CBS is very manageable. Everything is so quick, we never have a problem with our interactive whiteboards.

It’s just reliable and we have very little outages.

“We have wifi in every room, we have a suite of laptops that students can use for research or for projects, we have desktops, and the ASD class has tablets. They are not used all the time but they can be.

“It’s a huge difference from the last school I was in,” Mr Barry added.

“It was very slow, and if more than five or six computers were using it at once it would stall. It makes life more difficult, it makes it difficult to use tech — we couldn’t use something like an interactive whiteboard.

“In that school, we were meant to get about 16Mbps but it was closer to 3 or 4. It made using tech so much more difficult. We had a set of iPads and we just couldn’t use their full functions as much as would have liked.”

CBS recently partnered with Virgin Media to work on CoderDojo, programming workshops for children, kids, and they have started bringing in pupils from a nearby girls’ school to take part as well, Mr Barry added.

The school is also working on VEX Robotics projects with Dell, he added. “All of these projects are made much easier. I’m very much of the opinion that it needs to be blended.

“Tech certainly has a place, but we can’t let the teaching go away from teaching. Tech in the classroom is an excellent tool for research, but if we focus on it full-time, I’d be afraid we’d lose the concepts behind learning. So it needs a blended approach.

“You can still teach, and teach well, without it — but it does make it easier for us to roll out tech for students. With the CoderDojo, you can access projects from other years, you can download the software readily when you need it.”

And while broadband speeds weren’t always the fastest in Riverstown in Cork City, County Cork, Scoil Naomh Iosaf has seen a number of improvements in recent times, according to principal Pádraig Ó Breacáin.

Along with Strawberry Hill NS, Scoil Naomh Iosaf, Riverstown, (above) has one of Cork City’s fastest school internet connections
Along with Strawberry Hill NS, Scoil Naomh Iosaf, Riverstown, (above) has one of Cork City’s fastest school internet connections

With a download speed of 250Mbps, and an upload speed of 25Mbps, the school in Glanmire is one of the two primary schools with the fastest speeds in Cork, the other being Strawberry Hill National School in Sunday’s Well.

“It was a lot slower back in the day but we have grown along with the developments in ICT. Riverstown is a developing area, and it’s rapidly growing, and I think that’s been recognised that we have to have the infrastructure to match.

“We are fortunate enough really. We’re a big school, and we have a dedicated computer lab. We had kind of hobbled along over the last 10 ten years, getting a few secondhand computers from here and there to patch together. But we splashed out €20,000 on 30 thin client Dell PCs.

“Speed isn’t an issue. It means if a teacher asks a class of 30 kids to look at a video, they can all watch it themselves, together at the same time. We have wifi right around the whole school, and the speed is just not an issue. We also use a VDI — a virtual digital interface — and I believe we are one of the few schools in the country to have access to it.”

In the last two years, wifi has been extended across the whole school.

“Each of the ICT grants hasve been spent on development, upgrades, things like cabling or wifi. The grant money has been fantastic,” said Mr Ó Breacáin.

“IT and interactive whiteboards, things like that are tools. They are teaching aids. At the end of the day, teachers have to be able to communicate with their students, it’s not about sitting down on your backside behind a laptop, controlling what is on the whiteboard.”

“Really, you have to be able to communicate with your class, especially when you consider things like anxiety and wellbeing. You might be able to use tech to entice a child with difficulties to participate in a class, but teachers have to be able to communicate directly with them.”

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