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Home Policy ICT provision Should schools switch to 'revenue model' for ICT?

Should schools switch to 'revenue model' for ICT?

Tony Parkin gets the latest ICT guidance from the Schools Funding Agency
School networkDo schools really need to own their ICT equipment? After all, it immediately becomes a depreciating asset. Revenue-funded ICT services are the norm in the private sector – should they be more widespread in education? Especially when government capital injections for ICT development or refresh are highly unlikely in the foreseeable future?

These key questions were raised by Russell Andrews, director of technology and planning at the Education Funding Agency, speaking on "Educational Capital Spending and the Role of Technology in Learning" at the recent Academies Show in London.

The show attracted a large crowd, and the seminars and conference sessions were packed, which was not surprising as attendance at the event and all sessions was free for delegates, and good advice on funding ICT for learning is currently at a premium.

Although it seems a long time since Russell Andrews' popular keynotes during the heady days of the Building Schools for the Future (BSF) programme when he was still at Partnership for Schools, it is apparent that his commitment to ensuring sensible and appropriate use of technology in education remains unaltered. What clearly has changed is the level of capital spending for ICT associated with his work – and the challenges faced by all schools trying to sustain learning technology at the levels to which students and staff have become accustomed. Thankfully Russell Andrews has done an excellent job analysing and sharing the learning from the BSF and early academy programmes. He offers clear and useful guidance to school leaders seeking help with this complex area.

ICT provision for schools has four layers

With a wide-ranging brief on capital expenditure guidance, his advice on ICT had to be shoe-horned into the last few slides of a 15-minute talk, but was invaluable nonetheless. He divided the picture of the provision of ICT in schools into a four-layer model, then gave pithy advice on each layer:

  • Internet connectivity;
  • Local connectivity;
  • User equipment;
  • Cloud-based services.

Russell AndrewsUnsurprisingly the messages on internet and local connectivity remain relatively unchanged, despite the shifts in the economic climate. All schools should be hooked up to the National Education Network, probably via a regional broadband consortium, with a minimum of 10 Mbps (megabits per second) for primary and a minimum of 100 Mbps for secondary. Ideally the connection should be via fibre, though this was not always possible in rural schools, and, crucially, with robust filtering and safeguarding tools in place.

Local connectivity is equally important, and there was again emphasis on professional audits, installation and testing, quality professional wired networking and a core infrastructure capable of ever-increasing traffic. Wireless networking in particular needed to be of a modern, high standard, and should be tested when the building is in full occupancy and under heavy simultaneous usage. So far so good, no corners to be cut, and no surprises.

With user equipment, the third layer, there appeared to be some shifts of emphasis. The importance of selecting different tools based on the learning needs and fitness for the tasks, rather than choosing a particular standardised device was perhaps stressed more heavily. iPads may be wonderful learning devices, but not where the primary need was for heavy text input, was one example offered. The Bring Your Own Device concept was also featured as a possible way forward, though not without pointing out the challenges that could come with that strategy.

Cloud-based services, level four, was also flagged up as a general direction of travel for schools to explore, though with provisos around the vague nature of the terminology. Russell Andrews stressed there was even greater need to get levels one and two right before the ‘cloud’ can be an effective educational solution.

Revenue funding – 'a step in the right direction'

However, it is the suggestion that schools should treat the technology provision as revenue – rather than capital – spend that may arouse the most interest. Those with bitter memories of the earlier disagreements with the Treasury about capital versus recurrent expenditure in the area of ICT may laugh hollowly at this apparently ‘new’ idea. (I love the sound of stable doors being locked in the morning.) But at least we see a move in the right direction, and a more public acceptance of what many in the area have been saying privately for some time.

Earlier in the session Russell Andrews had shared some of the learning from BSF and Academy building programmes, to help those academies facing the prospect of new-builds. Gone were the BSF messages of consultation and creativity in designs; here the emphasis was all on standardised templates, simplicity and avoiding the expense of varying from the design brief. Frankly, one suspects many schools would just be grateful to see any building work going ahead to replace their decaying premises.

The graph of declining capital spend came as no surprise. What was a surprise was the size of the energy consumption in many of these new-builds. At a time when there has been a focus on ‘How green is my building?’, it seems that average energy consumption in the new-builds is about twice the PFI benchmark, and it is three times higher in some. Perhaps one clue might be the feedback from staff and students that the thing they like least about their new school is that it is so hot and stuffy. Russell Andrews suggests that the environmental controls in the new buildings have often been unduly complex and difficult to manage – clearly an area for improvement.

Where should schools turn to for guidance on ICT strategy?

So where should schools now turn for guidance on ICT strategy, and on the procurement of equipment from suitable suppliers that could deliver at all four levels of his model? And how should they avoid being caught out by some of the sharp practices seen at some technology suppliers? This was a question that was asked of Russell Andrews at the end of the session. He recognised that the disappearance of Becta, and transfer of responsibility to the Technology Unit at the DfE, also subsequently disbanded, has left a gap in provision, and said that the department "would have to keep it under review". This seems a very large gap to review!

Following Russell Andrews' session came one on "Developing Procurement Solutions", given by Jack Salter, head of commercial policy at the Department for Education. His section of the Department also has a wide range of responsibilities:

  • Providing procurement advice and guidance to the Department and wider education sector;
  • Identifying the risks and opportunities of the different procurement models;
  • Utilising procurement legislation to promote better outcomes;
  • The role of e-procurement;
  • Understanding EU Procurement Directives

Perhaps unsurprisingly, this session came complete with dire warnings about compliance with legislation, horror stories about schools being scammed, stress on the importance of framework agreements, and a confusing flurry of website addresses. These addresses can at least now be followed up via the presentation available online (see below). However, under "Computing" the presentation still says responsibility for framework agreements has been transferred to the Department for Education, without indicating to whom in the department schools should turn for help.

The same question about schools' sources of ICT procurement advice was asked of Jack Salter, He gave a similar response – that it was an area the DfE would need to keep under review. Well if the DfE is serious about wanting to avoid more of the negative headlines shown in Jack Salter’s talk, then I would suggest that any such review should occur sooner rather than later. Maybe there will be more news by the time of the Academies Show (Birmingham), to be held at the NEC on November 28, 2012?

More information

The Academies Show 2012 
Russell Andrews 
Russell Andrews’ presentation 
Jack Salter
Jack Salter’s presentation
BBC ‘scare’ headline used in Jack Salter’s talk 

Tony ParkinTony Parkin, former head of ICT development at the Specialist Schools and Academies Trust (The Schools Network) and now an independent consultant, describes himself as a 'disruptive nostalgist'. He can be contacted at  This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it  or on Twitter via @tonyparkin

 
Comments (3)
3 Wednesday, 06 June 2012 13:09
Mike Cameron
As I recall, most of the schools that were shafted by suppliers selling inappropriate financial packages had this done to them whilst BECTa existed, so I don't really subscribe to the idea that such an organisation protects schools in that way. Anyhow, it really misses the point. That issue is one of finances and not of technology. Surely the best place to go for financial advice is your accountant [:-)] or bank, not an organisation specialising in educational usage of technology.
What is happening is that we are going to move from a near monopoly supplier position (which in reality is what has existed in schools for many years) to a more market oriented environment. What schools need to do is link into the existing regulatory practices of that market - and I concede that they don't have experience of doing that, so they are going to have to learn fast.
One thing that I think will help schools is for them to realise that they are actually in a very strong position here. In most cases, the local school will be the largest consumer of IT related goods. It also has a guaranteed income (within limits) year on year. These are very desirable attributes for any supplier to have in a large customer. Schools can afford to be choosy and get the best deals from even the largest vendors.
2 Wednesday, 06 June 2012 11:17
Tony Parkin
Mike, Great stuff!
Behind Russell's carefully chosen and extremely time-limited words was, I suspect, much of the thinking you've expressed so clearly here. For too many years ICT in education has often been positioned as a separate market, when in fact the greatest potential gains are from closer alignment with the mainstream of ICT developments. Going with the flow is generally cheaper.
There will always be specialist niches within education, but for much of infrastructure and device procurement there is little case for a great separation (except perhaps specific internet filtering, accessibilty devices etc). But there also needs to be cultural awareness in the market. 
The case for managed services may be strong, but the antipathy to them from education is usually down to the inflexible and cuturally misaligned offers from ICT providers. What is also of some concern is the absence of independent guidance and advice in these choices from anywhere other than those with a commercial interest in selling their solutions to schools. With no Becta and the disbandment of the DfE's Technology Unit schools are being left to their own devices, and there are sharks in the market that will sell them the wrong ones  :) ! And continue to saddle them with expensive debts and inappropriate business models...  
As with most things in education, the solution here is not one thing or the other, but both. However, the issue that we need to be very clear about is that the revenue/capital decision will not always rest with the school. A good example of this is the internet connectivity that any cloud-based system relies upon. It’s not really available as a capital item, so will always be revenue.
And this is the way that the IT ecosystem is moving (and has been for some time). Storage, applications and whole operating systems are (successfully) moving into the cloud. Soon, some of these services will only be offered this way. Some of them (cf Google) has only ever been offered this way. The question is not what is cheaper/better for the school, it is rather what is more cost effective for the provider. I'm not a Google evangelist. I use Google Apps for business, but primarily as a mail and middle-ware provider. Google Docs works, but I don't personally use it every day. That said, it provides all the functionality that a school could want (and the same goes for Office 365). These products will dominate because they suit the vendors/providers business model better.
And this goes the same for other areas. Local network storage will disappear. Why provide 2gig per student with all the necessary backup when Dropbox (and others) will do it for free? Home/school data access? Tick. All the major schools MIS systems will move into the cloud. No schools asked them to, it’s just better for the vendors. Home/School reporting/assessment access? Tick. The business model that currently exists for tablet based apps will destroy much of the market in education specific applications. Many of our small vendors will disappear. The cloud will dominate because it is better for the vendors. We need to understand that and start to plan for it.
So the decisions that will be left to the schools are around infrastructure and devices. As noted in the article, access to the cloud depends on having both a high-bandwidth reliable internet connection and robust internal wired and wireless infrastructure. IMHO schools should not be trying to meddle with these items themselves. It was possible 10 years ago, now it isn't. The technical requirement is too far away from the main business focus of a school and require a diversity of technical skills that a school simply cannot afford to have on-site permanently. Such services will have to be brought in. This will inevitably lead to a mixed capital/revenue model. It should also get cheaper in the short term as such network provision is becoming more of a commodity. It does not depend on  the vendor having educational expertise, which will widen the market choice, bring in more specialist network vendors and lower the price. What schools have to do here is to separate out the technical from the financial. A cash rich school (yeah, I know) would want to purchase much of the hardware but buy in a service to manage the system. Others may want to buy in the whole system as a service. 
As for Internet connections, well one won’t be enough. And what schools actually need is an internet  connection with filtering. They don’t need the price of their connection to include the cost of someone sitting down organising the Pathe News back catalogue (sorry, personal bugbear there). When I rent my own home internet connection I have the option to rent films, or have a phone line. That’s what schools need.
And so to devices. Hmm. Know what I think? Devices don’t matter. Or at least they shouldn’t. And as we head to the cloud they will matter less. I have a PC, a Mac Book, an iPad and an Android phone. I glue them together with Droxbox and Google Apps. I can do most everything I want on any one of them and interchange most everything I want as well. Can’t do everything, but hey, get over it. This year I can do more than last year, and next year I will be able to more than this year. Some of this is due in part to the level of expertise I have, but improvements in middleware are making these capabilities available to most reasonably capable users.
So, the mistake that schools could make here is to build their systems around the devices and their capabilities, when they are the very things that change most often. So there are huge potential issues with BYOD but I would argue that the issues are greater if it is not embraced. How many schools can afford 1,000 devices? Not many. And the mandating of a single type of device leads to technological and pedagogical stagnation. I can type on any of the devices I’ve mentioned. I can take photos and edit them. I can make movies. I can surf. I can do most everything I need to. So, devices don’t matter.
Long story short – everything is moving to revenue. You might want to buy some of your cabling and edge switches, but most everything else will become a service. Start planning.  

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