Before the arrival of the Coalition Government, many schools’ ICT was managed through their Building Schools for the Future (BSF) contract. Five years on and the schools coming out of these contracts are left in a position of not knowing what they want or need.
Back then, the advantage of the BSF contracts was that schools’ ICT investment, infrastructure and management was taken off their hands leaving them to focus on teaching. However, for many schools the disadvantages were realised early on – and for others, their awareness grew as their understanding of education technology increased.
Many schools that we speak to describe the four-year cycle of their BSF contract. In year one things feel OK, as it’s new and it works. By year two things are still ‘acceptable’, but by year three the technology is starting to feel old; because upgrade costs are expensive schools put up with what they have. And finally, by year four the whole infrastructure feels very expensive as they are paying year one prices for old technologies.
As these ‘one size fits all’, inflexible contracts begin to come to completion, schools are getting their first chance to look outside of their BSF contract and in theory, choose an IT service that is aligned to their teaching and learning needs.
However, while schools are getting their first chance to look outside of their BSF contract after all these years of being controlled by their managed services provider, many do not have the experience of knowing what potential opportunities are out there and are now simply asking for the same again, as in their mind, it is the easiest and least disruptive option.
During the time they have been tied into their BSF contract, a lot has changed. They are hearing about how VoIP, virtual desktop, a new print management infrastructure and Single Sign-On will save them money and bring new levels of efficiency to the learning environment. Safeguarding, esafety, classroom management systems and mobile device management are also important parts of the 21st century classroom.
Considering all these elements can be overwhelming, and leads to many sticking with what they have, even though it’s not ideal.
However, taking control and making the right decisions is very achievable but must be done with the right ‘partner’. I use the word partner rather than provider because in my experience some school providers have a tendency to go back to the old ways of tying them into rigid service contracts that have little in-built flexibility to adapt to their changing circumstances for the future. So, whether you are an academy with the freedom to manage your own ICT infrastructure, or a school coming out of a BSF contract, here is my advice to you:
Spread the load
Avoid swinging from your ‘one size fits all’ BSF contract, to deciding your IT staff and network managers can provide the service you need. The Think IT framework has many partner companies providing hardware, software, networking, esafety, and parental communication, to name just a few. They are all experts in their own field, something that even the most talented IT manager cannot compete with. However, more than anyone, the school’s IT team knows what the school really needs. It may be unnecessary to pay the managed service provider to do everything. Maybe there are some aspects you feel you can support but in other areas you need help from the external provider; only pay for what you need.
Start at the end
Consider first what outcomes the school wants for its pupils, staff, parents and governors. If, for example one of your objectives is to improve literacy standards in Year 8, how are 100 iPads going to help achieve this? What are the other options?
Once the right ICT products and services have been agreed upon, the consultancy support should include change management; ensuring success through planning, implementation, training and communication.
You’re in charge
My next piece of advice is to never get into the restricted situation that some of these managed services providers impose. Schools should be able to choose from a wide range of products that support the specific outcomes they have identified.
Work with the managed service provider to build a project plan and timeline. This is an important process for the major aspects of a new ICT infrastructure, such as fiber-optic cabling, which is best scheduled for the school holidays.
Be aware of your public spending responsibilities; there is an EU requirement to tender public sector contract for any investment over £172k. Thankfully, because Think IT comes under the E2BN EU tendered framework, our schools don’t have to go through this process, but it is an important consideration when creating your project plan and timeline.
You and your IT partner should continually monitor and evaluate your ICT infrastructure to ensure your school is always offering the very best learning opportunities that are right for each student’s specific needs.
Again, always start by looking to the end: what do you want to achieve for your students? This will help you to realise the right solutions.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Neil Watkins is managing director of E2BN’s Think IT, the EU tendered ICT framework.