Nina Siddle explains how a primary cluster in East Yorkshire tackled the challenge of providing high-quality ICT support

ICT technical provision is now a crucial lifeline to any school. If this support breaks down, it causes major problems and disruption to the life of the school. The primary schools in our cluster in East Yorkshire found themselves in this predicament early last year and had to act very quickly to resolve the problem. This article will focus on the recent developments in our cluster that stemmed from this challenge, showing how an innovative approach can bring a wide range of benefits.

Exploring the options
In January 2006, a meeting took place on our campus (Withernsea Junior School) to discuss the sustainability of ICT technical support for our cluster of nine primary schools. It had become apparent that the prevailing level of support might not be sustainable, so several options were open to us:

  • We could buy in to local authority support – but at what cost and what level of response?
  • To employ a technician solely for the cluster primaries, splitting the cost between the nine schools, but based at Withernsea Junior School.
  • To employ an outside provider, sourcing a competitive service.
  • To remain as was, with a reduced level of support – but immediate responses could not be guaranteed. This was provided by our cluster high school, who could no longer sustain the levels of support previously provided.

The infrastructure of our ICT network ran across all the schools following a significant financial input from an Education Action Zone (EAZ). The ICT resources we had received were state-of-the-art, but once the zone closed, the sustainability of such provision was going to become more and more difficult. An Excellence Cluster was formed as part of an exit strategy for the EAZ, which did and still is helping to support us. This too will come to an end eventually, so the future was very much at the forefront of everyone’s minds. The schools decided that they preferred to keep the service within the cluster, using Withernsea Junior School as the provider. This meant we would have a strong hold on quality control, best value and be able to make changes or increase support if necessary.

Taking things forward

As a proactive school, all in favour of collaboration and sharing good practice, we agreed to develop this service for our partner primary schools. However, this was to be no small undertaking, but I was determined to make it a success and indeed, provide an enhanced level of support relative to that which we had enjoyed previously. As a school and as a cluster, we saw this as a great opportunity to develop our own provision and put in place procedures, a service level agreement, clear and agreed costings and a service which could be further expanded as it progressed. I immediately set to work on costing the service. This included:

  • the salary of the technician
  • on costs
  • an estimated travel allowance
  • a mobile phone contract
  • estimated overtime.

Some fixed costs also needed to be considered at the outset, and these have been reviewed a year later to reflect current circumstances. Items to consider included:

  • increase in server capacity for backups
  • set up equipment (ie laptop for technician)
  • a contingency fund for backup breakdowns etc.

In order to split these costs, I decided to use a formula which took into account the amount of hardware that each school used. This seemed fairer than student numbers, since this is not always reflective of how technically equipped a school is. Obviously, the more hardware, the more possibility there will be of reactive and proactive issues.

The formula:

(Total staffing costs ÷ Total hardware for the cluster) x Total hardware for school The fixed costs were divided equally between the schools.

The importance of a rigorous SLA

Upon appointing an excellent candidate, we set about creating a service level agreement. We felt this was crucial, so all schools concerned understood what they could expect from the service and in turn what we would expect from them. It is very important to make clear that a service which moves around a cluster of schools should not be called in for minor, remedial work. Examples would be:

  • ordering hardware/software – advice can be sought, but the actual procurement should be done by the school
  • replacing fuses
  • fixing loose leads
  • repairs covered by guarantees
  • peripheral repairs (ie printers or software for standalone PCs).

The SLA itself contains six main elements, as outlined below. 1. Our aims

  • To ensure that each school is supported fairly and equally, encompassing all their requirements and expectations.
  • The service will be monitored and assessed as the year progresses to ensure sustainability of curriculum ICT support.
  • We will undertake review level meetings with each school to identify any shortcomings in service levels.
  • ICT needs will be prioritised by seriousness of impact rather than complexity, dealing with incidents/ problems in an order that is most appropriate as a whole.
  • To provide a highly skilled technician with an understanding of the structure and operation of a school environment.
  • To provide a pro-active support service, to include agreed time allocations on site and remote support.

2. Our expectations

  • That all schools participating in this service will work together in a flexible and supportive way.
  • Where a school has a serious, high-impact need, they will take priority over others.
  • That the participating schools will work with us as a cluster, to develop and evaluate the service.
  • That all participating schools will endeavour to ensure their hardware is adequate for its purpose, reliable and efficient. A rolling programme for ICT infrastructure will be in place.

3. A list of the main duties to be expected from the technician 4. A list of work excluded from the service (could be resolved with training in the schools) 5. A reactive support charter This was obtained from the BECTA website, a very useful site to refer to when developing all aspects of technical support. It helped us not only to create the charter, but also to create the job profile of the technician and advice on how to evaluate the provision. Our charter includes contact details and a clarification of priority targets (high, medium and low impact), with an indication of response times (one to two hours for high impact, within the day for medium impact and one to two days for low impact). It lists the information required by the technician and describes the way he will respond (he will give confirmation of priority level, estimated response time and regular updates).

Evaluation of service

Using the BECTA website, we accessed a tool known as a FITS Assessment (Framework for ICT Technical Support). This is an online tool, which provides yes/no questions to help identify what levels of service you provide. It supports best practice and is relevant for any schools providing or receiving external technical support. I decided to complete an assessment at the beginning of the service and then again six months later in order to monitor progress. In a six month period we increased all areas up to 100% service delivery, with only two exceptions, which were built into the technician’s first performance development review as targets for the next year. These are currently being implemented. The areas the assessment covers are:

  • service desk
  • incident management
  • problem management
  • change management
  • release management
  • configuration management
  • availability and capacity management: network monitoring
  • availability and capacity management: preventative maintenance
  • service level management
  • service continuity management
  • financial management.

In addition to this assessment tool, at the end of the first year we undertook an evaluation of all the schools via a questionnaire. The responses were unanimous – excellent!

Proactive support
Establishing a proactive support plan is essential to the successful management of a cluster of schools, particularly in a shared network such as ours. We believed that if schools had a timetabled visit, shared equally over a fortnight, dependent on the individual infrastructure capacity, then they would feel well supported and a good relationship would develop between them, us and the technician. Each school was given the opportunity to express preferences of visit days and a timetable was created. It was agreed in the SLA that when a school had an urgent, reactive need they would take priority, but the visit would be repaid, in turn, at a later date. Remote support would also be available from wherever the technician happened to be on any one day. It has to be said that the right appointment is crucial to all of this. Having a technician who is not only competent and skilled, but has excellent interpersonal and organisational skills is essential. We firmly believe that this proactive support was key to the successful outcome of the evaluations. Not only did the schools feel well supported and ‘in the loop’, but in practice problems are often now identified before they become a reactive issue. This makes for smooth and effective levels of ICT provision.

Future sustainability

Following our very successful first year, we had some concerns as regards the continuity of the service. All schools signed up for a second year, which was fantastic, but the question was, what we would do if our technician wanted career progression and left us for a promoted post? This would be understandable, particularly in light of his big success over the last year. Also, there had been a few instances when he had been ill and was remotely supporting schools from home. This was unfair in the long term and needed addressing. In an attempt to overcome this we decided to look toward our local further education college and offer a work placement to one of their students. This was implemented after Easter this year and a vacancy will be formally advertised in July for a contracted post. The trainee may or may not apply, but in any event we have managed to resource the position purely from our budget, with a view to retaining the successful candidate on our site for the most part. He/she will be available as cover for the SLA support.

Furthermore, later this year, we will be looking to reprofile the existing technician in light of his new line management responsibilities, thus enhancing his pay and his job description, and thereby hopefully retaining him for some time yet.