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Easing the growing pains for multi-academy trusts

Schools need a secure technology environment to embrace digital learning and engage their pupils, says Steve Smith

Posted by Hannah Vickers | February 12, 2017 | Secondary

Steve Smith, Director of Learning at Capita Managed IT Solutions, looks at the challenges faced by multi-academy trusts (MATs) as they welcome new schools on board. 

No two trusts are exactly the same, but whatever their size, structure or style of governance, most will have encountered the challenge of bringing schools into the trust which have vastly different types of technology at their core.

All too often, the question of how to manage different technology systems is only considered after a school has joined a trust. Trusts then face challenges when it emerges that the new school’s systems won’t easily integrate with the rest of the trust, that there are difficulties upgrading the school’s broadband provision or that this new addition makes the diversity of core IT infrastructure significantly more expensive to manage.

Indeed, it’s not just connectivity problems that can cause headaches for a trust. Managing disparate technology across an academy group can have a serious impact on time, resources and budget, even when it comes to lower cost equipment. 

A large trust could easily have 20 schools with several wireless solutions, different switches and display technologies. This can inhibit mobility between schools for staff and pupils and the task of dealing with separate maintenance contracts, accessing product support, configuration issues and purchasing consumables becomes time-consuming and very expensive.

Freedom to innovate

It’s clear that not all schools or trusts will want to completely standardise every last piece of kit. In fact, many find that the process of on-boarding schools is a delicate balance between consolidating technology and giving schools autonomy in their decision-making.  

Some trusts unite a wide range of schools, each with their own strengths, characteristics and values, and what works in one school might not always work in another. This is also true of technology. If most of the schools in your trust use one type of tablet device for teaching and learning, but a new school is doing great things in the classroom with something different, why change something that is working well?  

Being part of a trust also allows schools to share knowledge and best practice to strengthen the education they deliver

That said, being part of a trust also allows schools to share knowledge and best practice to strengthen the education they deliver, and using different schools to undertake proof of concept and pilot studies can be extremely beneficial. This approach can lead to the successful introduction of emerging technology. For example, if one school has a successful track record in developing literacy among reluctant readers using an online learning tool, it is much easier and more cost-effective to build a case to introduce it to other schools as well.   

Firm foundations for growth

Whichever approach a trust takes, it is clear that they need a secure technology environment for schools to embrace digital learning and engage their pupils. 

For this to happen, trusts need to plan ahead so that when new schools join the trust they can hit the ground running with their integration and improvement plans. 

A key part of this process is recognising that staff and pupils are likely to be resistant to change and may have concerns about new technology or software. That’s why for many trusts, the most important part of the planning jigsaw is to focus first on their behind-the-scenes technology, which makes all the difference to performance but is invisible to the user. If the back-end works well, the user experience will be smoother and more obvious changes will encounter less resistance. 

By consolidating all their schools’ switches, servers or wireless provision and bringing them under one maintenance contract, a trust can negotiate more favourable terms from suppliers, allowing them to invest the money they have saved into teaching and learning. There are benefits, too, for the individual schools which are not just related to cost savings.  

Having a more coherent, reliable and interoperable technology solution, gives teachers the confidence to explore the use of technology in their pedagogy. This exploration can be done without the fear of embarrassment when it doesn’t work or issues with technology’s performance wasting valuable teaching time. This is one of the keys to developing more collaborative learning and the flipped classroom for example.   

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