One of the greatest challenges facing the Heads, Principals and School Business Managers in today’s ever-changing world of technology is the struggle to balance a sustainable ICT model with ever-increasing budget cuts. But for multi-academy trusts, this issue brings a unique set of challenges – as well as opportunities.
In addition to directly reducing costs, enhancing learning and driving improvement, trusts face the challenge of providing a consistent ICT provision across multiple academies, whilst balancing the need to increase collaboration, grow their trust in a sustainable way and leverage their scale to achieve greater value for money.
As autonomous organisations, trusts have the freedom to create or select services that meet their specific needs – but with so many competing pressures, technology can often be neglected, poorly planned or poorly implemented.
ICT must enable and enhance – rather than hinder - the trust’s educational and organisational objectives and vision. For learners, it needs to have a positive impact and create engagement and collaboration; for senior leaders it must help to deliver improvement and attainment across each of their academies, whilst reducing costs and expenditure.
Over the last two years, we’ve been working closely with many trusts of different sizes and in different parts of the country to gain a deep understanding of their priorities, needs and drivers, and this has given us a strong insight into the issues they face.
Chief among them are finding ways to collaborate more effectively as a group of academies, establishing consistency across individual academies in terms of their approach and use of technology, and leveraging that technology to make cost savings – both in terms of ICT expenditure and in using ICT to make savings in related areas to release funds for frontline teaching and learning.
Additional challenges include the ability to access and interrogate the data that is vital to the effective running of a trust, ensuring that the use of technology across every academy is safe and compliant with the expectations of OFSTED and the DfE, and making the best use of cloud technologies to drive innovation. To achieve this, a cloud-based Management Information System (MIS) is essential; it allows trusts and academies to access their data from anywhere, whether it’s to check pupils’ attendance rates, take the register on a school field trip or checking pupils’ medical records on a whole-school visit to another academy.
Transferring mission-critical services like MIS to the cloud also allows multi-academy trusts to reduce costs while enabling senior leaders to easily access the data they need to run their academy, or group of academies, effectively
There are also choices about what kind of technology to put in the hands of the learners and teachers, such as making sure the devices are fit for purpose and have a sufficient life span, and choosing the right way to fund ICT.
With pressure on budgets – especially capital funds – large one-off investments in infrastructure or devices are not feasible for most multi-academy trusts, so moving as many services as possible to a revenue-based model is also an important consideration.
It’s also important to take a true total cost-of-ownership approach to the use and implementation of technology, and consider not just the delivery but all aspects of the ICT estate – including people, CPD, infrastructure, training, support, devices, broadband and online safety.
Moving to a cloud-based ICT model is the key to a sustainable and scalable ICT provision. Multi-academy trusts can leverage cloud technologies to make use of collaboration and productivity platforms such as Google Apps for Education and Microsoft Office 365 to create consistency across individual academies. Transferring mission-critical services like MIS to the cloud also allows multi-academy trusts to reduce costs while enabling senior leaders to easily access the data they need to run their academy, or group of academies, effectively.
There are obvious cost-saving advantages to moving to the cloud; over the medium to long term, the savings a Trust can expect to make are significant, potentially running into tens of thousands of pounds each year – although it’s important to note that moving to the cloud often also requires upfront investment and a transfer in spend to new areas like training and support.
Time is another key benefit for trusts moving to a sustainable ICT model; this is likely to have the biggest impact on the teachers, since using technology to find more effective ways to communicate, plan, collaborate and deliver lessons can have a dramatic effect on time-saving when multiplied up over five, 10 or even 30 academies in a trust.
But whilst cloud technology brings a myriad of benefits for trusts, it doesn’t present a quick fix solution. Moving to the cloud can take time to implement and embed, and this can vary greatly depending upon the starting point; a small primary academy with less on-site technology could make the transition more quickly than a large secondary academy with a vast legacy infrastructure, for example.
Adopting a successful model starts with having a clear strategy, led by those at the top of the organisation with expert advice from a trusted partner. It’s essential that this strategy is agreed and sponsored at a senior level - ideally at CEO level in larger trusts and Executive Principal level in smaller trusts.
Trusts that are most successfully developing their sustainable ICT model are doing so because their senior leadership team are firmly engaged in the process and - most importantly - acting as advocates for the strategy and adoption of technology.
With careful planning, a clear vision and engagement from the whole trust community, multi-academy trusts can put themselves firmly in control of ICT with a model that allows them to grow in a sustainable way.
Jesse Johnson is Head of Multi-Academy Trusts at RM Education