Steve Smith makes the case to governors for outsourcing the ICT element of Building Schools for the Future projects

The schools sector will experience a radical transformation under the Building Schools for the Future (BSF) initiative as every secondary school and half of all primary schools across England will be rebuilt or refurbished through the government’s £45 billion investment by 2020. This is the biggest single government investment in school buildings for over 50 years and one of the most ambitious public building programmes ever. Not only will schools be renovated, but the pattern of educational provision will change through a complete overhaul of ICT infrastructure and services. A constituent part of this initiative is that schools are expected to partner with managed service providers to procure, manage, maintain and refresh ICT infrastructure and equipment. Managed service providers will 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. This can be a daunting prospect for schools, particularly those who are yet to undertake this process. It can raise concerns over perceived loss of control and the stifling of innovation, an increase in workload, the possibility of disruption, cost-effectiveness and the success of the partnership.

Sharing control

Many schools currently employ their own technical support staff, set their own ICT priorities, purchase software and control implementation. The concern therefore is that a partnership with a managed service provider might change this and consequently hamper innovation. In reality, good providers fully support in-house teams and work closely to encourage innovation. Far from experiencing a loss of control or receiving a generic solution, schools benefit from a comprehensive service tailored to meet their unique needs. Schools are given the opportunity to choose the software, content, infrastructure and services required from a global supply chain that offers the best of all products on the market.

All in a day’s work

An element of apprehension exists that this project brings substantial increases in workload, taking up valuable time – a scarce resource for any school employee! In the short term a period of increased workload is unavoidable. This is absolutely critical to the success of the project. However, the benefits of investing sufficient time in the initial phases will certainly become clear in the long term. Managed service providers offer highly supportive engagement processes to enable staff to contribute to the project without feeling too burdened by an increase in daily workload. New or improved ICT facilities also help free up staff time to enable focus to be placed on other areas.

Keeping to schedule

Given the scale of each BSF project, it is inevitable that a level of disruption will be experienced. A certain amount of bedding-in time is necessary while everyone becomes familiar with the process, but good managed service providers offer training and support at every stage, whilst keeping technical issues to a minimum.  For instance, proposals often include utilising school holiday periods and phasing plans to fit in changes around the school’s annual timetable.

Financial matters

The total cost of ICT is frequently underestimated by schools. To establish a true reflection of expenditure, calculations should include direct costs, ranging from employment and training of in-house ICT staff to hardware and software. Of equal importance are indirect costs, which often get overlooked, such as informal support – for example, the drain on staff time in the event of unforeseen problems. As ICT is often the highest cost in school budgets after staffing and building costs, appointing a managed service provider makes financial and logistical sense. Providers commit to budgets within which all software and services must be installed and managed and problems fixed. Therefore responsibility for a consistent and effective level of service is passed on to a third party rather than being a persistent concern for schools.

Good relations

Establishing a new partnership is a worrying time for all involved and all parties need reassurance of a strong and successful alliance. Managed service providers aim to achieve effective partnerships with schools and endeavour to explain fully their expectations as well as understanding schools’ key performance indicators and required outcomes. Good providers take full account of everyone’s view and possess the ability to engage with people at the right time and in the best way.

Growing with BSF

Under the BSF initiative students will be educated in world-class, 21st century learning environments – inspirational environments that teachers will be proud to teach in and pupils will be eager to learn in. As schools and ICT communities come together to turn the government’s ICT vision into a reality, schools must embrace the benefits that this programme offers and, from the ICT viewpoint, ensure a strong and successful partnership is developed with a truly flexible managed service provider.

Steve Smith is Business Development Director at Ramesys, a leading ICT provider to the education sector. He is a former deputy head at a technology college.