Analysis

Can IT investment in schools keep pace with change?

Kathleen Hall

The profound changes in the education sector promise to cast long shadows over the future of IT investment in schools, prompting the question of whether the next generation is getting access to the right technology crucial to the digital world.

The academies programme – instituted by former parliamentary under-secretary of state for schools and learners Andrew Adonis under Tony Blair's premiership – has been greatly widened in scope and ambition by current secretary of state for education, Michael Gove.

Consequently, an increasing number of schools are opting to become academies. This model means they will no longer fall under the control of local authorities, but will be funded by central government directly.

This means schools will have more freedom over budgets and greater choice in where they source IT support and procurement expertise, areas traditionally supplied by councils which now find themselves competing with alternative service providers. But this comes at a time of comprehensive public spending cuts which have affected and will continue to affect school spending.

Squeezed school IT budgets

Tom Paes, network manager at Tomlinscote School and Sixth Form College, believes the academy model could see institutions invest less money in IT. Paes’ school is not an academy, although it is considering whether to become one. “If money is not ring-fenced for IT, it could get swallowed elsewhere. IT will suffer – it already has.”

Paes’ school has already seen a decrease in IT investment as budgets are being squeezed, he says. 

“We are not keeping pace with our need, for example with our virtual learning environment we need availability 24/7, as kids are accessing material from home day in and out," said Paes.

"We’ve had to increase the log-in time to sixth former until midnight. That means we need to beef-up our systems and build-in disaster recovery, which we haven’t been able to do properly.”

Because there is little money, there is reluctance to make further investment in IT and now the government’s Harnessing Technology grant has disappeared – a fund which saw £600m distributed to schools between 2008 and 2011 – Tomlinscote is struggling to make crucial IT investments, he says.

But Janine Bryant, head of school IT systems support at Hertfordshire County Council, is more positive about the recent changes. Bryant believes there are advantages to the new system, as previous top-down programmes where IT implementations have been imposed on some schools have gone awry.

She says the county’s schools’ IT procurements have been minimal with the shift to the academy model, as they have always taken an autonomous approach to their technology expenditure.

“The devolved approach will result in anomalies in terms of how much schools invest in IT – which is neither right nor wrong. It will be their choice,” she told Computer Weekly at the Capita SIMS annual conference.

The changing landscape of school IT investment

Robert David Bell, former permanent secretary at the Department for Education, said most schools benefited from significant IT investment over the last decade, as one of the first priorities of the Labour government was to have the National Grid for Learning (NGfL), a government-funded gateway to educational resources on the internet. 

“I think most schools had the benefit of putting in place a powerful infrastructure. This has meant schools in the UK are well catered for,” Bell told Computer Weekly at the same Capita SIMS annual conference. 

“But the pace of change is such that we can’t rest on our laurels, technology bought four years ago is already out of date. The year-on-year reduction in budgets was relatively modest in 2010. We are now in the second year, when get to the fourth year we will see budgets getting tighter.”

The principle of devolved governance in education means it will be up to providers to make judgements about IT investment themselves. 

“A consequence of greater devolved budgets is that schools have to be more mature, informed purchasers,” says Bell.

But the education IT industry will also have to adapt. 

The emergence of education consortia

“A number of providers in the market will possibly have to change their business approach, as they will have a new market of mini contracts, such as chains of schools,” says Bell.

"That could pose an interesting issue for the industry, as it’s arguably more efficient to deal with hundreds of local authorities rather than thousands of schools.”

Without local authorities buying IT for schools at scale, education institutions will need to club together in consortia.

Bell believes local authorities may retain control of IT support and services in some areas – where schools have chosen not to go down the academy route – while academies will band together to form chains of schools.

He is broadly positive about the changes underway. “The provision of IT services will continue to be an important area in our schools, it’s not a market that is disappearing, but changing,” he said.

Individual schools must become canny when it comes to systems overhead costs.  

“They are small fry when trying to cut a deal with providers. But sometimes schools may say although they’re not getting the best deal in financial terms, they have a flexible and responsive agreement,” he said.

“The days of benign paternalism in local authorities are gone.”

Philip White, chief executive of Syscap, a finance company has had experience working in the ICT schools market for 16 years.

“The last three years have been a challenging time for schools, with the new administration we saw the demise of Becta [the quango responsible for overseeing schools’ IT] – which had been a useful resource in helping schools navigate technology, get the best deals and advice,” he says.

“Then came the Comprehensive Spending Review, dramatic budget cuts, academies and free schools and the whole sector found itself in a state of flux.

“While that flux has happened, people have done nothing. They’ve sat on their hands and failed to invest. But technology doesn’t stand still."

Syscap’s research found overall spending on ICT has dropped significantly, with one in ten schools in England and Wales spending less than £10 per pupil per year, while 395 schools failed to invest anything at all during the last year.   

The repercussions of greater autonomy for schools

He says the consequence is that children are using far better technology at home than in school.

“As a citizen, parent and someone who has spent a lot of time in this sector, that raises cause for concern.”

But the notion that some academies might fall rapidly behind others now ICT spend is no longer ring-fenced is too easy a conclusion to make, he says.  

“For the last 14 years we’ve already seen devolved budgets in local authorities and the demise of central control has empowered some heads to make good decisions.”

Greater autonomy over budgets is not a bad thing in itself, and could in theory lead to more investment in IT for certain educational institutions. But to benefit from the best discounts, schools will need to club together to increase their negotiating muscle. This will mean a substantially increased workload for schools' governing bodies.

Schools will also need to be wary of unscrupulous suppliers taking advantage of a lack of buying expertise – as happened at Glemsford Primary, where the school got saddled with a £500,000 debt by leasing laptops marked up ten times their original value.

One solution could be the suggestion made by Michael Wilshaw, the chief inspector of schools, to form a national network of school commissioners to support academies that no longer benefit from the guidance of local authorities.

 


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