Where can schools get reliable information on ICT equipment? David Gordon looks at some useful sources

A recent survey carried out by the National Association of Head Teachers drew attention to the problems and pitfalls associated with the procurement and servicing of ICT equipment.

The NAHT’s general secretary, Mick Brookes, said there was ‘real evidence of mis-selling and poor maintenance that could be a major scandal’ and called on the government to set up an inquiry into the provision and maintenance of ICT equipment.

Although the report admitted that the evidence for some of the horror stories around the purchasing and support of school computer equipment was anecdotal, it still maintained that the NAHT had ‘uncovered evidence suggesting alarming problems with IT support services in some schools, alongside nervousness among some heads about what to buy in order to get best value for the school from equipment which should last several years’.

The NAHT’s report drew on discussions on the Edugeek website, set up for IT professionals working in schools. Several of the participants reported that their schools had been ‘ripped off’ by IT companies, who had often exploited the inexperience and lack of knowledge of their predecessors to sell them equipment or services at extorted prices. Examples given included a company charging one school more than five times what it charged another to install the same piece of equipment and another company charging schools extra for Windows operating system licences, even though these were already included in the price of the computers they had sold them.

The report highlighted the extraordinary growth in the use of technology in education over the past 20 years, pointing out that there is now a computer for every seven pupils in primary schools, compared to a ratio of one to 18 in 1998, while in secondaries the figures have dropped from one computer for every nine students 12 years ago to one for every four now.

PCs are also now only one part of a school’s electronic equipment with staff having to master devices that might include laptops, digital cameras, iPhones, Blackberries and electronic voting pads, along with peripherals ranging from printers to electronic whiteboards.

The NAHT reports that this upsurge in electronic diversity has come with challenges for headteachers in particular. ‘All of the technology needs to be supported when it breaks down. Heads need to make sure they are getting value for money when purchasing new equipment and software. And they need, in an ideal world, to have the time to ensure they keep up to speed with the potential of new developments to improve the learning process,’ says the report.

So where can heads – and governors – go for help and advice with their ICT purchasing? Under the last government, the Department for Children Schools and Families had been developing the Online Procurement for Educational Needs system (OPEN), which enabled schools to compare prices from a range of suppliers before ordering.

Schools can still register for OPEN and see a demo of how it works at www.dcsf.gov.uk/open

There is also a range of advice to help schools get the best value from their purchasing at the Educational Procurement Centre (EPC), which is part of the Teachernet website at www.teachernet.gov.uk/management/epc/

Neither of these sites is specific to ICT procurement, however, and the most important source of such advice and practical help for schools remains, for the time being at least, the government’s education technology agency, Becta. Despite the fact that Becta is about to be abolished to save money, it claims that its procurement arrangements have saved schools and colleges many times more than the agency costs to run. It specialises in negotiating procurement agreements complying with European Union regulations, which saves individual schools having to go through the tendering process themselves as well as enabling them to benefit from economies of scale.

In a speech to the Westminster Education Forum at the end of March Stephen Crowne, the Chief Executive of Becta, said that Becta’s procurement mechanisms had already saved £185m between 2005 and 2009, but that there was scope to achieve much greater efficiency in education through effective use of technology. ‘By 2014 we could find £270m-£380m more from reduced cost ICT services, workforce efficiency, and improved teacher productivity,’ he said.

He added that integrated admin and management systems have saved around £60m over the past three years, and that this figure would increase as more schools adopt these software systems. He also suggested that improved tools and resources for teachers, including registration and reporting systems and use of online resources for teaching, saved the equivalent of £1bn of teacher time between 2005 and 2008.

Stephen Crowne said that we face big challenges in getting a high quality, cost effective and sustainable IT service in place for every learner and every school and college and argued that the market and individual institutions can not be expected to deliver this alone.

‘We need to articulate present and future demand for technology for education and skills, in a way that shapes the response of the market, so that suppliers provide the solutions and systems that will really support improved services.’ he said. ‘We need to ensure that the education and skills system saves time and money by using solutions and systems that work together effectively and are value for money.’

A starting point for achieving that value for money is Becta’s own booklet, Getting best value from your investment – a guide for school leaders, which can be downloaded from publications.becta.org.uk/display.cfm?resID=35291

There is also more general advice on how to purchase technology for your school at www.becta.org.uk/schools/procurement

Because buying in bulk tends to be the most cost effective, Becta recommends, however, that schools should not do their purchasing individually but should achieve best value by purchasing through a larger group, such as their local authority.

Help for schools wanting to get the best value from their ICT maintenance and support costs by training their own technology staff is available from the FITS (Framework for ICT Technical Support) Foundation. This is itself an offshoot of Becta, but it is working to become self-funding so that it can continue as an independent body after the demise of Becta itself.

The FITS Foundation offers two professional qualifications for ICT staff covering support and management of an ICT service. It also offers non technical information for heads and senior management teams to help them understand why they should implement FITS. As a not for profit company, it uses its examination fees to fund the development of new training materials.

The framework itself is available on the FITS website at www.thefitsfoundation.org

The overview to the framework asks ‘What is financial management?’ and defines it as ‘the tracking and control of the cost of ICT services and support’. It also homes in on going for economies of scale as one of four key ideas for reducing the cost of ICT services and support. It suggests that schools should:

  • Join forces with other schools to create a virtual technical support team, buy in services together or buy in bulk.
  • Ask your LA to co-ordinate services on behalf of all schools in the area.
  • Investigate the existence of specialist colleges or other schools with ‘specialist’ status that may be able to help you.
  • Combine ICT with non-ICT services to provide a single service centre instead of separate ones for different services.
  • Ask Becta about their procurement framework that is saving schools considerable amounts of money on their purchases.

As a first step towards improving their ICT procurement, schools might want to review their current situation. Becta has just revised and updated its Self-review framework, which allows schools to evaluate all aspects of their ICT provision. The element on resources includes a standard on the procurement of ICT resources, allowing schools to rate their current performance on this five-level scale:

Procurement of ICT resources is impulsive, unplanned and only reactive to available funding. No account is taken of environmental impact and the safe disposal of equipment.

There is some planning for the procurement of ICT resources, but little account is taken of environmental impact and the safe disposal of equipment.

ICT resources are procured efficiently with regard to the total cost of ownership and value for money. Some account is taken of environmental impact. The school has begun to address the issue of safe disposal of equipment.

The procurement of ICT resources and services follows best practice guidelines and takes full account of the total cost of ownership and value for money. Consideration is given to environmental impact. There are some processes in place for the safe disposal of equipment.

Procurement is part of a systematic whole-school approach to providing ICT resources and services which are sustainable in the longer term. Regular review of processes ensures good value for money, minimal environmental impact and the safe disposal of equipment.

The framework can be found at selfreview.becta.org.uk

Schools that take some of the steps outlined above should start to feel confident that they won’t be adding themselves to the NAHT’s list of ICT horror stories.

This e-bulletin issue was first published in July 2010

About the author: David Gordon is an author, writer, editor and qualified lecturer and has also been a parent governor. He has been the editor of School Governor Update since its launch in 2000