A balancing act

Can the education sector realistically invest in edtech while still balancing budgets? ET Editor Rebecca Paddick finds out

Rob Yems, Procurement Director at Schools’ Buying Club
Rob Keenan, Head of Portfolio Management at Unify UK&I
Brian Durrant, Chief Executive at London Grid for Learning
Sam Pemberton, CEO at Impero Software – Samantha Blythe, Director of Schools at Canvas
Nik Stanbridge, VP Marketing at Arkivu

Do current budgets realistically allow schools to provide high-quality tech?

Rob Yems: Schools’ budgets are already stretched to their maximum and it is extremely difficult for school business managers and headteachers to prioritise spend in areas they want to invest in. Now more than ever schools need to focus on all areas of non pay spend to free up that much-needed investment and be able to invest in high-quality tech. In our experience of working with schools up and down the country there are five key areas where considerable savings can typically be made: photocopiers; cleaning; catering; ICT and utilities. 

Rob Keenan: Schools face a tricky reality when it comes to budgets. There are ongoing funding cuts, together with already slim budgets. This certainly makes it harder for schools to prioritise spending on technology. However, technology has steadily become more affordable over the last few years, and many vendors do have special deals in place for education facilities. Overall, this has made high-quality infrastructure much more attainable. The question is one about smart management. A well-plotted tech strategy and spending now can actually help to make the school more efficient and cost-effective, both now and in the long term. Schools also need to increasingly explore cloud technologies, as there will likely be much less upfront costs for new hardware with these options. For this, time and willingness are much more necessary than just a big bite out of the budget.

Brian Durrant: Schools need to ensure they spend their money wisely and make fully informed spending decisions, especially where supply contracts are long term. Paying close attention to what is included and what will be additional, less obvious ‘complementary’ costs can save schools thousands of pounds a year; perhaps some readers will know of instances where expensive equipment lies idle because the running costs cannot be afforded. LGfL’s TRUSTnet broadband service includes within the quoted annual charge a whole basket of services, benefits and online content; being an educational trust we just want to give schools what is needed to teach and learn more, not get a foot in the door to sell more.

Sam Pemberton: School budgets are constantly changing and have changed a lot in recent years to create more scope for investment in technology. However, a strong business case is, of course, still needed for high-tech investment to be approved by school boards. Luckily, high-tech vendors acknowledge the budget challenges schools face and are becoming more flexible in terms of pricing and payment options, while also working with the schools to prove the technology’s return on investment (ROI) and value for money.

Samantha Blyth: We understand the pressure on school budgets but have found that if the tech is genuinely designed to support and enhance the teaching and learning process, then schools will see the value and find the necessary budget.

Nik Stanbridge: With significant government funding cuts across many public sectors, higher education is just one amongst many that is feeling the financial pressure. This is driving the need to not only look at cutting costs, but also how these organisations can implement digital transformation strategies across the board. Universities must consider the prioritisation of investing in digital data archiving to meet certain mandates and preserve research data. Our message to universities is that our archiving solutions are more cost-effective and have a lower TCO than typical alternatives, enabling organisations to meet their storage needs for decades to come, and that this is a wise investment. 


Do you think the majority of the sector is prioritising edtech investment?

Rob Yems: This should definitely be a priority as every school should be able to provide technology matched to the delivery of their curriculum. However, budget constraints and high costs associated with other provisions which schools need to purchase restricts their ability to do so. An effective procurement strategy, including collaborative purchasing, can assist in meeting this goal. Schools’ Buying Club work with a number of schools who have got together to purchase goods and services and have saved themselves thousands of pounds.

Rob Keenan: Edtech investment appears to be a bit more slapdash than prioritised. We are seeing schools wanting to go digital, but not really having the capability – due to budgets – capacity, or partners to reach the full potential in edtech. With UK-based edtech providers growing faster than ever before, now is the time for schools to cut the cord with the old, and act. 

Brian Durrant: The majority of schools have always given priority to ICT budgets, having been encouraged, by successive targeted funding streams in the 1990s and 2000s, to invest well and experience the benefit of good ICT provision. When the Harnessing Technology grant was withdrawn on the entry of the Coalition government in 2010, there was a dip in overall schools’ spend on ICT, but earlier levels of spend have since been restored, and BESA statistics show edtech investment continuing to take a front seat. The evolution from ‘ICT in the curriculum’ to ‘the curriculum through ICT’ to ‘invisible ICT’ (i.e. learning regularly enhanced by effective use of ICT as an unremarkable norm) has been further developed in recent years by the preponderance of personal productivity devices and increasing access to secure Wi-Fi provision in schools, powered by high speed uncontended broadband connections – although many UK schools are still without a dedicated and uncontended broadband connection.

Sam Pemberton: A school’s tech investment hinges on the school’s vision and how much value they see technology as having. Technology is an important aspect to ensuring a great education, but good tech on its own is no panacea. Most schools Impero speak to do prioritise edtech investment as it is seen as a fundamental part of modern teaching and preparing students for the real world. Having current and well-regarded tech is also very enticing not just for teaching staff but also for students and parents.

Samantha Blyth: There is a really wide spectrum in this area. We see that some schools find it more of a challenge to incorporate edtech into their overall school strategy, but when you start talking about how to improve parental engagement, how to manage interventions and how to encourage pupils to be more engaged in their own learning – they then understand the value of investing in the right edtech. Other schools are keen to be at the forefront of developing new ways for edtech to support the changing landscape of education.

Nik Stanbridge: While it is true that higher education institutions have a range of areas that their budgets must account for, widespread opinion is that they are not investing enough in technological development. The UK is a global leader in both education and technology, and must continue to invest in both in order to retain this status. A particular issue that we are pleased to see is being prioritised is that the research data that UK universities are creating is indeed being protected properly. While it cannot be denied that the importance of preserving this data is being steadily recognised, as many UK universities are investing today in services to store their data securely for the long term, more must be done to ensure that the work being created today is safely archived for the benefit of future generations.

Most technological products evolve and improve, causing existing models to become out of date and even obsolete. Does that make it difficult to invest in something that will give return on investment?

Rob Keenan: Edtech, similarly to enterprise technology, is about durability as much as innovation. Therefore, while rapid change is the nature of the game in technology, a big part of choosing edtech is going for suppliers who understand the education sector through-and-through. It’s vital that they focus on simplicity and future-proofing over flashy systems. Thankfully, core technology, such as communications infrastructure, is all about having a solid basis that is unlikely to change any time soon and upon which it is easy to install upgraded features. Also, the really good providers will be able to share a solid road map of their future vision.

Brian Durrant: I have observed over the years that schools which maintain a consistent strategic approach, owned by the senior leadership of the school, tend to make the best return on their investment in ICT. Changing horses can be unnecessarily burdensome and have unexpected costs. It’s not uncommon for ‘a new broom’ who favours a particular kind of technology (be it Mac or PC, Google-docs or Office-365, SIMS or Integris, this learning platform or that one) to put aside equipment, systems or resources which have years of good life left in them, declaring that new investment in their ‘pet’ technology is the only way to go; a year or two later they’re away off to their next project and no one else really understands the set-up left in their wake. 

Sam Pemberton: It is very important for tech investments to have longevity which is why many software vendors are moving down the SaaS route, or offering affordable support contracts that include updates and upgrades, to ensure that their customers always have access to the latest technology. Long-term relationships – especially in education – are really important. It is up to the vendor to keep customers happy and ahead of the game in the long-term. This is no simple task, and therefore, Impero deals solely in the education sector to give all our customers the focus they deserve.

Samantha Blyth: That is a really key area where schools need to be much more engaged with how software is actually built and designed. Modern software should absolutely be able to support agile development and have an open architecture, which allows fast and innovative development. The pace of technological change is so enormous that companies, who still use 10–15-year-old tech, risk increasing the divide between the experience pupils and teachers have in the classroom and at home.

Nik Stanbridge:  Significant return on investment is essential for universities, as they must constantly endeavour to have the best technology available for their students, while also making savings wherever possible. The fact that technology is constantly surging forward and new market offerings seem to be unveiled every day makes this goal particularly difficult to achieve. Not all technologies are created equal and the key is therefore to invest in technology designed for the long term – technology that offloads the challenges of evolution and improvement. The easiest way to achieve this is through managed service offerings – rather than deploying technology locally, deploy third-party services where the burden for hosting, managing and maintaining is with the vendor. Such services also tend to be very economical. 

Universities should carefully select products and services that can be adapted or built upon in years to come

Can suppliers offer top-quality products and services that stay within a school or university’s budget? 

Rob Yems: There are a number of great educational ICT providers who offer excellent value for money for services required by schools. However, in order to maximise value schools need to ensure they implement effective procurement strategies for the different types of ICT purchases they make i.e. purchasing one hundred laptops is a completely different strategy than purchasing an ICT-managed service. Schools’ Buying Club are experts in school ICT procurement. There are a lot of contracts schools are currently bound into which offer particularly poor value. A recent tender for an ICT-managed service that Schools’ Buying Club have recently completed has resulted in a school saving £100k over the three-year contact period which they are now using to reinvest in supporting technology such as upgraded broadband and refreshing their desktops and laptops.

Rob Keenan: It all boils down to communication. The supplier and school must work closely to identify the school’s primary needs and then scale those according to the available budget. This helps guarantee that the products are of the best possible quality and, more importantly, answer the school’s needs. While no school is the same, the more we as suppliers work with the education sector, the more we learn and can develop products to act as bespoke one-stop shops for schools with smaller budgets. And this without making any sacrifices on quality. Ultimately, the majority of education technology providers also do have a special set price for education facilities, as they understand the pressures these institutions face.

Brian Durrant: This will depend on each school’s budget priorities. For example, some independent schools, uninfluenced by a history of targeted government funding, continue to make low investment in ICT, while others have some of the largest ICT budgets and best facilities. If schools make wise, fully informed choices they can ensure safe and effective use of ICT to support learning, and the real impact often comes to down to how resources are deployed and managed, which is an important issue for schools to consider. There’s not much point in having multiple shiny computer labs if they are locked up and unused most of the day. The schools which gain the greatest benefit and ROI from ICT spend are those which have the most fully developed practice in management of ICT resources and in the pedagogy which puts ICT to productive use in the teaching and learning process.

Sam Pemberton: As a school’s tech purchase often spans a number of stakeholders and departmental budgets, it is possible. Having an offering that meets the needs of all the relevant stakeholders makes software more affordable as it consolidates a number of standalone products giving measurable savings. While certain aspects of software are subjective, a software provider’s ability to prove the ROI also helps. If your software has built-in reports to calculate savings it is possible to easily build a strong business case when contract renewal decisions have to be made.

Samantha Blyth: This also relates directly to ‘value’. Good tech can actually save schools money, i.e. by less printing, increased savings by centralising IT spend on the dozens of individual products bought by departments, enabling easy access to free high-quality web-based content and tools. It is also important to think about value in terms of saving teachers time on repetitive administrative tasks and allowing them to focus on pupils – not paperwork.   

Nik Stanbridge: High-quality services don’t automatically equate to high cost. That said, universities have a huge amount of ground to cover with often limited budgets, and suppliers must be conscious of this when creating services for the education sector. The best way for a tech supplier to stand out and ensure that their services are a positive use of a cash-strapped university’s budget is to develop them so that they won’t be outdated six months from now, and not to bloat them with superfluous capabilities. 

What three things do schools need to think about when looking for the most cost-effective, high-quality technology?

Rob Yems:

  • Firstly schools need to understand the way in which they want to use technology in order to ensure that they are not buying anything they don’t need. For large purchases it’s always worth getting the views of industry experts.
  • Secondly it’s advisable to research the market and find the best educational suppliers to understand the supply market. Be careful though as different suppliers are able to offer a variety of discounts from the same manufacturers. Therefore don’t always go with your incumbent as there is a chance there is a better deal out there.
  • Thirdly there are loads of different ways to efficiently purchase tech provision from e-auctions through to formal tendering. The school with the best procurement strategy will definitely get better value for money!

Rob Keenan:

  • Future proofing, to maximise on the investment and allow to transform the system in the future – we always urge schools to look at cloud solutions.
  • Ease of use, so that all staff and students are able to learn and interact with the technology quickly and efficiently.
  • The supplier’s previous experience in the education sector, to ensure that the technology would suit a school setting.

Brian Durrant: 

  • Do we have an overall long-term school ICT strategy owned by the senior management and implemented with their full support, review and oversight. Start by asking what do we want to achieve by the use of ICT resources in our school, where are we now in relation to that and what are the necessary and sufficient conditions to get us from where we are to where we want to be? 
  • What can we learn from our experience, and that of other schools we know, about effective ICT procurement and use? What has worked well for us, what less well? What have been our best (and worst) investments?     
  • Are we making the most of what we have already? For example, the LGfL service which provides uncontended broadband to over 2,500 schools brings with it a wide array of valuable services, curriculum resources and safeguarding support, and while many schools gain enormous return on investment, and make huge savings, some schools pay little attention to the wider service features and waste money making a duplicate purchase e.g. for expensive anti-virus software when LGfL includes Sophos Enterprise in its package. 

Sam Pemberton: 

  • Flexibility – in terms of pricing, development priorities and product support.
  • Vendor relationship – schools should choose a vendor that understands its needs, is willing to work closely with the school, and that takes a market-led approach to software development.
  • Communication – choose a software provider that is investing in their technology and communicates how through road maps. It’s always good to know where any business is heading. At Impero our vision is to be “a mid-sized power player in the EdTech space”, which might sound grandiose, however, the company’s plans clearly demonstrate a willingness to invest heavily to create intuitive and sophisticated technology to achieve that goal.

Samantha Blyth:

  • Will it get used by ALL teachers and pupils? If not, the cheapest product is a waste of money.
  • Is it future-proofed? Can it work for teachers who are very new to edtech who need very simple ways to start their journey, as well as for tech-savvy teachers who want extensive mobile apps with a strong pedagogical focus and the ability to create sophisticated assessment and feedback models?
  • Is the company ‘easy to do business with’? What do their customers say about them, how do they support you and how many staff are focused on making sure that the investment is a success – is there a strong and vibrant community?

Nik Stanbridge:

  • Long term – To get the most cost-effective results from the technology that they invest in, higher education institutions must look for products and services that are designed to be long term, as the need to constantly buy into new products that are a step-up on the previous offering can be a significant drain on resources. At Arkivum, we sign contracts with our customers that can last 10, 15 or even 25 years, and maintain a constant relationship throughout. In this way, our customers know that they won’t face any unexpected large costs in the near future by having to find a new provider of data storage every few years.
  • Lower cost and TCO – Value for money is essential, and so universities must carry out the most thorough market research possible, and purchase technology that is proven to be the highest-quality offering available to meet their needs. Cost is a major factor in particular for the provision of long-term data storage, and Arkivum addresses this by providing managed services that deliver predictable costs thus insulating institutions from hidden extras. 
  • Flexibility – Finally, universities should invest their budgets in flexibility. Technological requirements change over time, and so building on the notion of long-term investments, universities should carefully select products and services that can be adapted or built upon in years to come, and easily integrated with other systems, as opposed to quickly needing to be replaced.

To read another of our roundtable debates on keeping children safe when using edtech, click here.