Avoid wasteful spending

If there’s one thing guaranteed to annoy hard-working taxpayers like you and me, it’s a story about a shameful waste of public funds. There have been many high profile examples in recent times, but one frequent occurrence has, quite literally, been hidden from view. Whereas 20 to 30 years ago a sneak peek in a school stock cupboard would have probably revealed nothing worse than some dusty old text books that were no longer relevant to the current exam syllabus, nowadays you’re just as likely to stumble across piles of expensive computer equipment that, whilst perfectly functional, simply isn’t being used.
So, with ever-increasing scrutiny of financial regularity, how do you avoid this kind of wasted investment being the case in your school or academy and, with further cuts to education funding on the cards, how can you get ‘more bang for your buck’ when it comes to ICT procurement?

What causes waste?
Firstly, we need to look at why this situation most commonly arises. ICT companies are very fond of referring to their wares as ‘solutions’. Sadly, sometimes it’s a case of a solution seeking a problem. In other words, new technology is introduced to the organisation because somebody somewhere has decided it’s a good idea. Maybe that’s been to do with a ‘hard sell’ from a supplier who has brought an innovative product to market; perhaps a senior member of staff attended a conference or a show where the technology was being promoted; or, occasionally, a visit to another school or academy where a particular piece of kit is in use may have prompted the purchase.
It has also been known for ICT procurement to be based on one of the following: educators wishing to keep up with certain trends in the general public’s use of computing and communication devices; to actually be ahead of those trends and maintain a reputation for being at the leading edge, with all the attendant issues of being an early adopter; or even on the back of people seeing a new gadget being tested on a television programme.  
In all the examples above, the most likely scenario is that far too little time will have been spent prior to procurement to determine what needs the various users have and how these needs might best be met. As with any type of change, when it comes to introducing new technology, if members of the organisation have not been involved in decision-making processes, do not understand how the potential use of the ICT fits with the overall vision (and even values) of the school/academy, and where it has not been explained to staff how new systems or equipment can help them to do their jobs better, faster or more easily, then resistance is bound to ensue and much of the investment will have been wasted.

Improving outcomes
In an education setting, the core purpose is all about teaching and learning. Therefore, decisions about ICT purchasing should start with questions relating to what technology can do to enhance the processes of teaching and learning and how it might help drive better outcomes. An essential dialogue will focus on key improvement priorities in the School Development (SDP) / Academy Improvement Plan (AIP) and/or stemming from the findings of an Ofsted inspection. Such priorities may be whole-school: for example, increasing attendance rates through introducing electronic registration and a text messaging system that alerts parents to absences and checks if they are authorised.         

Alternatively, they may be focused on a specific area or department: for instance, introducing visualisers into science lessons may overcome problems with students being unable to view all aspects of teachers’ practical demonstrations and will mean that experiments can be videoed and posted on the school’s website for students and parents to access for homework and revision purposes.  
Of course, some priorities may be externally imposed, such as changes to national curriculum requirements. Already, we have witnessed examples of schools bringing programming aspects of the new Computing curriculum to life through investment in robotics and similar control systems.
Whatever the scenario, determining which types of device and what software are most appropriate is extremely important. Small, handheld devices may be useful for recording data and evidence whilst on a geography field trip but a PC with a large display screen and plenty of data storage is far more relevant for a music technology lesson or for CAD (computer aided design) purposes.
Rob Atkin, a network manager, explains the strategy at his academy: “The procurement at Thornaby Academy consisted of a full wired and wireless network. Innovative teaching and learning are delivered through desktop and portable devices, and classroom audio-visual equipment. This approach gives our students and teachers the flexibility to explore new techniques on a day-to-day basis. The purchase of a Pop-Up classroom will give students the opportunity to immerse themselves in different scenarios and extend their learning experience at Thornaby Academy.”
With good reasons being established from the outset through meaningful consultation with users about their requirements, with clear targets agreed for changes to practice and improvements in results, the likelihood of newly introduced technologies being used to good effect increases manifold. But that is not the end of the story because there are other causes of kit lying dormant in stock cupboards too. Infrastructure or equipment that is under‑specified will not function correctly or will operate very slowly, leading to frustration on the part of staff and students, wasting valuable learning time and ultimately resulting in users simply giving up.

Online provision
Nowhere do these kinds of issues seem to be more prevalent than in access to the school’s network and the internet, particularly where wireless networking is concerned. The promised utopia of an ‘access on demand’ model of ICT provision so often fails to materialise. Once again, it is vital to determine your requirements from the outset. How many users will be logging on at any given time and where are they in the building? Are there peak periods, such as the start of the day or immediately after breaks and lesson changeovers when the system will be under particularly heavy loads? How much of the site do we wish to cover; for example will P.E. staff need a connection whilst teaching on the playing fields? Do we want to extend access into the local community? Do we wish to adopt a BYOD (Bring Your Own Device) approach? This last strategy can be particularly helpful where schools are committed to bridging the digital divide through equity schemes that provide learners with individual access. Having answered these questions, it is essential to commission a professional survey, to determine the optimum numbers and locations of wireless access points and in order to acquire advice on management and security issues.
Gary Spracklen, director of digital learning and innovation says: “At Isle of Portland Aldridge Community Academy we recently procured new infrastructure that supports a ‘device agnostic’ approach to learning.

A Cloud Managed WiFi with 1:1 mobile PC provision for 800 students means that technology now meets the needs of our learners wherever they are. Having fast, agile access to technology means we can focus on developing students’ essential skills and entrepreneurial qualities, empowering them to take control of their own lives and contribute to the community around them.”
Another key consideration is how far you want technical support and management to remain in-house, with the potential for greater control and flexibility but increased staff costs and the potential for key person dependency, or whether outsourcing via a managed service is more attractive. In any case, adopting a risk management approach to the oft‑overlooked matters of insurance, warranty cover, repairs and spares is highly advisable.
To bring together all the various facets of technology deployment, schools and academies are well advised to have in place a bespoke ICT Strategic Plan and associated policies (including one on procurement), overseen and driven by a steering group that includes representation from teaching and associate staff at all levels of seniority, with input from parents and governors. The plan should set out the school/academy vision for the use of ICT, the long-term aims and short-term objectives, make it clear who is responsible for achieving what, how and by when and what levels of resource – financial, estates-related and human, including training – will be required to meet each target.

It is also a good idea to specify senior staff to monitor progress against each action and likewise to allocate governance oversight. It is important that a forward plan is included for ‘technology refresh’, identifying likely timescales for replacing infrastructure and equipment due to obsolescence and/or general wear and tear and linking in with the overall capital expenditure plan for the school/academy.

In fact, the extent to which the ICT Strategic Plan links with other, whole‑school planning will largely determine its success and impact; most crucial of all being cross‑referencing with the SDP/AIP.

Finally, as is the essence with all planning, look to the future. There is a significantly increasing trend for school federations and multi-academy trusts. Over-specifying ICT solutions can be as wasteful as under‑specifying them, but accounting for planned expansion or possible future growth through investing in network infrastructure, management information and finance systems that are scalable can be a wise move.

Further information