Tony Parkin gets the latest ICT guidance from the Schools Funding Agency
Do 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.
Unsurprisingly 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?