Who’s in charge of it?

According to an Ofsted report on The Importance of ICT – Information and communication technology in primary and secondary schools, 2005/2008 it was found that: ‘Using ICT was contributing positively to the personal development and future economic well-being of pupils and students. It developed their skills of working independently and co-operatively and was in most cases motivating and engaging.’ But who should manage these services? Teachers and school leaders already have a busy workload and are constantly adapting to changes in the curriculum.

At Naace (the national association for everyone promoting learning with technology in a connected world) we tend to work directly with school business managers. We understand there are huge advancements in technology that are needed for the classroom, but the bottom line is that any IT investment, whether it’s in the classroom or in the school, has to be targeted on some kind of outcome and the majority of business managers tend to be responsible for the IT. But what they get is a domain that is driven very much by technical people; people who talk in technical language and technical acronyms and actually tend to be a little bit blinded by what technology actually is. Now that’s not the fault of the people around them because you do need technical experts managing your IT system. You need technically driven service providers leading the way. The difficulty for business managers is knowing what it is they’re actually spending their budget on and whether they are getting value for money. So we always encourage business managers to take an output approach to what they want, rather than an input based approach.
This means that they need to be focused on the outcomes; what is it you want the technology to do and how will it benefit your school’s needs? Quite often there is a lot of temptation, especially for technical people to get carried away with various gadgets and widgets with all the flashing lights, but in reality those products might not be what the school needs, even if they are the most advanced products out there. School managers should ask if the service they are going to spend money on will provide a network that runs smoothly and whether it will service the school’s needs. For example; will it give the school a solid infrastructure upon which they can roll out 60 iPads?

A partnering agreement
It’s important that when dealing with service providers you ask the right questions; such as, ‘with your expertise and based on what you know about our school and our requirements, can you tell us which one of those many options you think is best for us?’ It makes for a much better relationship. There are plenty of services out there that will operate like this and some with plenty of specific educational expertise. It’s a good idea to work in partnership with a provider. If you work together and share what your expected outcomes are, as opposed to telling the provider that they can decide the best options for you, then it will result in the school getting the best ICT solutions. It’s quite a lot of work and a hard approach but if you start that way then you’re already on the right track for a proper partnering agreement. So work with service providers that show interest in your school’s needs and not with one that’s just trying to sell the best IT or technology product. From our work with schools we find that most business managers are open‑minded and want to embrace that approach.
Another point to note is that quite often, school business managers and schools in general, automatically expect their service provider, who might be providing a very technical managed service or a very technically led IT based service, to also provide advice and guidance and strategic input. 99 times out of 100 the service provider has never been contracted to do that. They’re contracted to run the operational service but they haven’t been contracted to give specialist or strategic advice.
So I also recommend to not only ensure you articulate the need for advice, guidance and strategy but also to contract separately, even if it’s with the same provider, because it’s a completely different set of skills that you are looking for advice on. That’s a slightly hard one to get over business managers because it’s often assumed that such services would come under the original agreement. There are different ways to tackle this situation but I advise schools to always separate these services because you are asking for different experts and different skills.

I’m often asked for educational pedagogical advice on ICT or curriculum ICT expertise. That’s actually the same with strategic operational business led ICT, as opposed to hard delivery of ICT.

Business managers
For school business managers and headteachers, it’s essential to have a reliable managed IT service strategy within their school, especially in the 21st century, to make it run successfully. But when it comes to things like the changes in the curriculum, for example assessment without levels and being in a position to check the progress of students, then that’s a whole different challenge again and requires different products to address it. Pedagogy is the core delivery for schools. They are there for teaching and learning; running IT systems is not core business to a school.
No school can afford to have a head of e-learning concentrating on pedagogy and have an IT director focusing on the operational, commercial and business side; that’s two senior SLT roles that just aren’t affordable. So the business managers have to really think about the right placement and design of services.

My holistic guidance for schools is always about affordability. Business managers are a bit wary of suggesting areas they need to save money on but I suggest giving as much financial information as you possibly can. The reason is not to put service providers off but actually to let them know the parameters you’re operating in will be hugely beneficial.  This will allow the service provider to come up with the best possible plan for you, within the budget you can operate in.
An interesting tension I’m presently finding is that there is a push for school business managers to look at subscription based services. But in the IT world at the moment, subscription based services actually equate to the cloud. Cloud based services are fantastic in the commercial world, but could run the risk of schools offshoring 90 per cent of its systems up into the cloud when 90 per cent of the education delivery happens on campus.
If a school is going to work with a partner on these things, as they can be successful for schools, you need to look for that ‘education specialist’ background to ensure your needs are met.

Naace member Nick Madhavji said:“When it comes to budgets, renting or leasing are great options for procuring certain technologies needed in schools. When it comes to ICT systems, find out the ongoing costs of maintaining the new system and make sure there aren’t any hidden costs or future unwelcomed surprises. Teachers and school business managers shouldn’t be afraid to challenge suppliers. IT is increasingly becoming a bigger part of the budget, yet schools have to be weary that there aren’t any guarantees about what direction their future funding levels are going in and can’t expect their budgets to go up to meet the demand for new systems or products in their school.  
Therefore, partnerships really pay off because the right partner won’t be thinking just about making a sale, they’ll be thinking about the level of impact their services are having on learners and nurturing that relationship with the possibility of turning that school into a case study, and ultimately an organisation that will refer other schools. It’s important that schools are looking to the future and even possibly making five year plans – it’s difficult to do but it’s not impossible: the Naace self-review framework is a great tool to support this.”

Moving forward
Schools are entering a period where an understanding of robust IT infrastructure and an operational service that’s flexible enough to meet curriculum and classroom demands requires a high level of expertise. With all the recent changes in the curriculum and in technology as a whole, it’s definitely a challenge but schools are willing to acknowledge the need to have just as much ownership of the service and operational side of ICT as they do on the curriculum, teaching and learning side of things. We should encourage them to think about their relationship with providers. Are they getting the strategic, commercial and business advice they need and is that provider working on a development plan unique to the school’s needs and optimised for their circumstance?
In my role, I work with the school business manager community, and my organisation works both in schools and the independent sector and I do find that school business managers may have challenges but they are becoming more understanding about what needs to be done for their schools when it comes to ICT solutions.

Further information