As part of the Building Schools for the Future (BSF) initiative initiative it is recommended that schools work with a managed service provider to procure, manage, maintain and refresh their ICT infrastructure and equipment. Steve Smith explores ICT outsourcing and highlights the potential cost savings

The Building Schools for the Future (BSF) initiative is set to transform the education sector by rebuilding or refurbishing all secondary schools and half of all primary schools across England by 2020. It aims to ensure that school students are educated in a 21st century learning environment – an inspirational environment that teachers will be proud to teach in and students will be eager to learn in.

However, this initiative is not simply about bricks and mortar; ICT is a key part of the BSF agenda and so the reshaping of the ICT infrastructure and services is equally as important.

The reality is that growing levels of investment in educational ICT provision has meant that schools are faced with rapidly changing, and increasingly complex, technological challenges. Therefore, establishing an effective ICT outsourcing partnership to provide professional support is crucial in helping schools achieve their BSF vision. And yet there remains a level of scepticism in the education sector about the true financial benefits of working with a managed service provider.

Managed service providers commonly offer:  

  • call management
  • telephone support
  • third party management call handling and contract management
  • infrastructure remote monitoring and management services
  • desktop management
  • asset management services
  • resourcing – people and skills
  • support – mobile and onsite
  • hardware maintenance
  • application service provision
  • remote hosting
  • disaster recovery.

Generally, managed service providers manage the ICT services within a school, and offer a tailored solution to address ICT needs at every level, from basic helpdesk support through to comprehensive management and support of the entire ICT infrastructure. It is not uncommon for it to be viewed as an area of further expense, whereas in reality the outsourcing path often leads to a more efficient use of school resources – partnering with an external provider, can therefore, make both financial and logistical sense.

For instance, not only will outsourcing ICT bring cost-savings, it will enable schools to provide high levels of technology service while maintaining a strong focus on educating its staff and students to fully utilise the technology. In other words it encourages schools to exploit their strengths by overcoming their limitations.

Establishing a new partnership can, however, create concerns as all parties need reassurance that it will be a strong, successful alliance. The best-managed service providers will establish effective partnerships with schools and endeavour to understand the school’s key performance indicators and required outcomes. A good provider will take full account of everyone’s view and engage with people at all levels.

Emerging technologies
Fascinated by modern technologies, today’s school students already have ICT-rich lives and are eager to become immersed in our high-tech world by taking advantage of leading-edge applications. The rapid pace of change in the educational ICT market has allowed students to connect to resources barely imaginable a decade ago, and there is no doubt that state-of-the-art new applications will continue to emerge. The learning environment of the 21st century will see teachers and students empowered by technology, as it revolutionises the teaching and learning process and changes the entire educational experience.

Under the BSF initiative, ICT will be fully integrated into the design of the school. Technology will evolve alongside both pedagogy and school building design, and therefore, schools will move from being fixed and inflexible, in terms of both ICT and buildings, to being new high-tech learning environments.

Therefore, partnering with a responsive managed service provider is essential: it is vital to work with a partner who has the educational vision, the appetite for innovation and the skills to make the best of emerging technologies.

Number crunching
As ICT equipment and software is the biggest area of expense for schools after staff and building costs, the cost-effectiveness of this area naturally attracts much scrutiny.

To establish a true reflection of total expenditure the current real cost of in-house support must be ascertained before a thorough cost analysis of outsourcing technology support is completed. Although this value can fluctuate greatly between schools depending on their size and structure, schools are often surprised to realise the true amount. Calculating this figure also encourages schools to fully appreciate just how much is actually being spent on ICT.

Areas of ICT expenditure include:

  • direct employment
  • training
  • hardware
  • software
  • networking
  • broadband connection
  • consumables
  • formal support
  • informal/self-support (eg the personal time spent on support or technical self-help)
  • senior staff time spent involved in strategic ICT decisions.

Schools often underestimate the total cost of ICT, particularly the drain it can take on staff time in the event of problems. The cost of self-support can often be hidden or not recognised by the school. For example, staff who are not employed in technical support roles can spend time installing ICT, fixing problems or carrying out simple administrative tasks such as loading paper in printers.

Average ICT revenue spend per student ranges from £60-£180 per annum; this figure of actual expenditure is one that schools are often surprised to realise.

Exploit your strengths
Schools commonly employ their own ICT staff who manage the entire ICT process. For these members of staff a common concern is that a move to a managed service provider may result in a loss of control and that it will be detrimental to innovation.

On the contrary, schools that have already experienced the move to managed service providers have realised the collaborative approach to ICT management and have seen how it encourages innovation. Far from experiencing a loss of control and receiving a generic solution, schools can select comprehensive ICT services tailored to meet their unique needs.

As technologies in education become increasingly integrated and sophisticated, maintaining in-house expertise becomes an even greater issue. A general knowledge of the ICT industry is no substitute for a full-time professional’s expertise. As such, expecting school technicians to keep up to date on the management of vital but complex applications such as firewalls, is asking a great deal.

Similarly providing the necessary training to keep staff up to speed on the latest developments can be a costly affair. The sophisticated and complex nature of these applications also means that ICT presents the most significant threat if deployed inappropriately.

To increase efficiencies and get the best value from existing staff skills, school ICT staff must be empowered to redirect their focus from intricate technical details to maximising the benefits of using ICT for the purposes of teaching and learning.

This is achievable by working alongside the teaching staff to help embed ICT into the curriculum. Hence, technicians will support teaching and learning, not devices. Passing responsibility for the most complex technological applications to a third party supplier boasting highly skilled professional engineers who are specifically trained to tackle this area, is an appropriate alternative.

Centralisation, standardisation and risk transfer
In the event of difficulties, large complex systems can be incredibly time-consuming and costly to service. A competent outsourcing partner will relieve such inconvenience by assuming complete ownership of the situation, while providing proactive support to prevent issues arising.

Most heads would probably agree that school technicians spend a disproportionate amount of time ‘managing’ these applications. Centralising these services significantly removes the complexity from within schools, and frees up valuable time that can be used to concentrate on other areas.

Standardisation makes perfect sense, particularly as schools often discover that some of their current applications are actually unsuitable for their educational needs. Therefore by ensuring that the same packages are used across the school, standardisation brings considerable benefits. For instance it is easier to support, maintain and upgrade. Additionally, information is more easily exchanged and shared between users, standard procedure is adopted and training is uniform across the school.

If a school manages an ICT system in-house, it is responsible for all risks and associated costs. Instead schools can exploit the benefits that a managed service provider offers. They will commit to a budget within which all ICT must be installed and managed. By working with a managed service provider the risk is transferred, and in the event of complications, the external partner is fully accountable.

Through proactive monitoring and an investment in time, a reputable managed service provider prevents problems happening rather than reacting to issues as would generally happen in-house. The reason for this is that managed service providers have both the capability and the resources to keep fully up-to-date with ICT developments across the industry.

The way forward
Technologies in use in the school sector will continue to become increasingly integrated and revolutionary. Under the BSF agenda world-class, 21st-century learning centres will be created, which will inspire learners for decades to come and provide facilities that entire communities can benefit from. The future will be lifelong learning: anywhere, at anytime, for anybody, covering any topic.

ICT is integral to the government’s BSF revolution and is the gateway for schools to not only build advanced new systems but to completely rethink the management of their ICT provision.

For some schools that have considered the outsourcing path, cost remains a deterrent that has prevented them entering into long-term managed service contracts. However, there are certainly substantial savings to be gained, in time, money and human capital, by outsourcing a school’s ICT requirements. Once a school has reached the point of understanding the real value of technology, its inherent complexity, and the issues involved in the total cost of ownership, it can then begin to weigh the pros and cons of outsourcing.

Through placing confidence and trust in ICT providers to do what they do best, schools can open the doors to cost-savings and free up valuable time to focus on what they do best – teaching and learning.

Steve Smith is business development director at Ramesys, a leading ICT provider in the education market.