The rapid academisation of schools throughout England and Wales is having a profound effect on almost all aspects of the education landscape.
The accompanying decentralisation of budgets and policy away from local authorities is, in turn, having a knock-on effect on the way schools organise their finances and especially the way they procure services. Some of these effects are less visible than others.
One key area of procurement to which academies must pay close attention is ICT, and in particular network provisions. Before the academisation agenda took hold, local authorities used their scale and scope to procure council-wide networks, managed and procured centrally. With the rise in local procurement by academies or small academy chains, the economics and technology involved in education networking are changing.
Deciding on a network provider and finding the best contract for each individual school is a complex process, and one which is best handled by someone with real expertise and experience. Yet many academies put one of the most sensitive and risky projects in the hands of a staff member who may not have the time or the expertise to make an informed decision – not many schools are going to have a chief information officer on hand to negotiate this potential minefield.
Interestingly, in Scotland there is a move in the public sector to aggregation of procurement rather than fragmentation. As outlined in the McClelland review of public sector ICT infrastructure in Scotland, the fragmentation of the market and the absence of complete governance models leads to unintended consequences. McClelland notes: “The mixture of a market place with large and powerful ICT companies on one hand and this extremely granular and uncoordinated approach on the other is certainly not a recipe for achieving good value. In addition, it will never deliver progress towards an efficient and effective digital public sector.”
The mixture of a market place with large and powerful ICT companies on one hand and this extremely granular and uncoordinated approach on the other is certainly not a recipe for achieving good value
This is exactly the issue with procurement of ICT programmes in England and Wales, and yet the polar opposite response is recommended. Some academies are going it alone with ICT procurement, outside of nationally recognised frameworks. This effectively puts all the risk of ICT procurement in the hands of the academy. It begs the question: Is internet connectivity in your school a service for which you want to take on the risk? Whether it is securing the right safeguarding measures or securing the best and most cost effective contract for your school’s needs, do you feel you have the expertise necessary to get this procurement right?
My instinct would be that most academies do not have the specialist skills needed for this process. When it comes to ordering loo roll or paper for the printer, it makes sense that the procurement is done in-house, with the school itself best placed to know its individual needs. But that’s evidently not the case with network provisions. As academies lose the ability to rely on their local authority to take care of this essential procurement, what is the best way forward?
The simplest and best advice is this: Go with a safe pair of hands. For small schools, there will always be the potential of being lured into a cheap arrangement with an unknown who says he can hook up the school for not much money. But this will not offer the school any protection when things inevitably go wrong, and the reputational risk to schools is huge. It would be incredibly difficult for a school’s governance team to recover from children accessing inappropriate material, for example, if they cannot demonstrate having chosen a reputable network provider who will be able to act quickly and competently.
Is internet connectivity in your school a service for which you want to take on the risk?
Using a known and national brand will help avoid this risk, as safeguarding responsibility can be built into contracts and big providers can offer network management as part of the service. A managed service is absolutely an essential starting point. And while academies might not necessarily be able to hand the responsibility over to local authorities, the potential to share network services with schools in the same area through a large supplier is one way in which academies can keep costs to a minimum and limit the risk.
It is always going to be tempting for academies with limited budgets to go with the cheapest option. Allowing a teacher to get three quotes and then go with the cheapest option might work for paper towels, but it this would be a highly irresponsible way to procure network connectivity services.
So while academisation continues with pace, laying the groundwork for connectivity now is absolutely essential. If schools are to safeguard their children and get the best possible managed services they must share best practice, pool expertise, and chose a provider that offers the most reliable and safest – not the cheapest – ICT solution.