MATS: It(s) experience that counts
Shaun Phillips, technical director of education network specialists Calibre Secured Networks, discusses the issues around MATs
The much trumpeted multi-academy trusts (MAT) could revolutionise the way schools cooperate and share resources in the future, delivering efficiencies and cost savings on a hitherto unparalleled scale.
MAT is one of the most formalised type of collaborative structures available for schools and the typical set-up might see for example two or more schools in a geographical area joining forces for mutual benefit, all governed by a single trust, and retaining an element of each school’s budget centrally to make purchases – such as shared services – on behalf of everyone under its control.
This can deliver economies of scale, with a MAT able to negotiate contracts and services that could potentially achieve better value for money than if the schools negotiated these individually. The ultimate ambition of a MAT, which is a single entity, is to achieve a strong collaboration between all the schools involved and drive up standards by providing a consistent strategy and vision across a coherent group working together.
However, as utopian as this all sounds, the impact for IT (and the technology providers and installers providing products and services) cannot be overstated, and throws up some challenges that must bear careful consideration – and require specific skills and expertise – to deliver the holistic solutions that will bring the all encompassing e-learning experience that everyone involved can use and benefit from for years to come.
The process begins by considering the basics from which ultimately the final technology specification flows: one unifying IT system covering potentially lots of schools sounds harmonious but it also generates some tough commercial and technical questions that need answering before moving forward. For instance, how does a cohort of schools reduce several disparate finance and administrative departments down to a single department that everyone can use, and then how do you identify which school is the best at what disciplines?
Similarly, how do you put the technology in place to meet these and other challenges, and whose platform do you choose – and why? How do you then migrate all the schools onto that common platform to support functions such as HR, finance, virtual learning, planning, management and timetables among other systems? The key to success is to have what’s euphemistically called ‘one version of the truth’ that means that a MAT has, for instance, a single finance system with the data held in one place and not shared elsewhere.
Mobility is another consideration. Pupils need to be able to go into any of the MAT schools and log on using their mobile devices to access common platforms via homogeneous enterprise-grade networks. These powerful, high speed wireless and wired networks are required to drive the seemingly unrelenting range of new applications and technologies coming on stream and finding their way into the classrooms to provide the stimulating and engaging multimedia experiences and interactive learning sessions.
This all underscores the importance of having IT engineering expertise available that understands the issues and nuances and can ‘talk’ to the schools involved in a common and jargon-free language to deliver standardised and ubiquitous connectivity built on enterprise-grade networks.
These networks – more commonly used by industry and commerce – can be better managed centrally and offer sophisticated features for scaling-up technologies throughout buildings and campuses, delivering a host of cost-effective features to enable network requirements to be raised to unprecedented heights of innovation, effectiveness and user applications.
They also provide the basis for a more streamlined pricing model for these straitened times, helping to reduce, or even eliminate, costly software licenses while softening any financial impact from future upgrades. This provides a MAT with greater transparency and budgetary control, going a long way to eliminating the potential for expensive ‘surprises’ as the network grows to meet changing needs and the requirement for additional features for new QoS and VPN-based applications.
Calibre is already consulting with several schools in the north-east to deliver MAT technologies, assessing fundamentals around high performance network provision as the building block to deliver a whole suite of integrated platforms. The sky’s the limit about how far these and other schools can take the MAT approach to deliver a visionary new world where pupils, teachers, support staff and management can take advantage of communications technologies that not only deliver genuine mobility, interaction and best practice but also the long-term cost and efficiency savings everyone craves.
With extensive experience of designing, delivering and managing enterprise grade networks for schools and other education providers operating on limited budgets, Calibre’s packages include cost-effective enterprise class IT solutions to meet requirements for scalable, resilient, robust and future-proof systems.
Visit www.calibre-secured.net for more about a free audit of your current infrastructure to ensure that you are ready to use mobile devices and to get the most from your investment.