At what cost?

Rebecca Paddick asks the roundtable, how can the education sector invest in the best technology while staying within budget?


✥Dr Nick Dennis, Deputy Head (Academic), Berkhamsted Boys, Berkhamsted School
✥Elaine Manton, Stem Co-ordinator at Loreto Grammar School
✥Jacquie Stevenson, Head of Ntegra Education
✥Paul Young, Head of Technical Services at UTAX (UK) Ltd
✥Stephen Young, Xerox Public Sector Framework Manager

Have recent curriculum changes made it more difficult for schools to balance budgets?

✥ND: This is a yes and no answer. Yes, in that providing for new courses in terms of books, resources and later on training take up more resources and time. No, in that if you plan carefully it means you cut your cloth accordingly. It is all about thinking ahead but this can be difficult when the pressure is on. 

✥EM: In education, things are always changing that’s why it’s important to have at least a three-year budget which is reviewed and updated regularly to take into account any changes.

For our school the changes we have introduced in the curriculum have involved a streamlining of ICT and Technologies at KS3 to provide a more spontaneous, and hence, creative curriculum. So the students actually have less curriculum time than previously with a higher proportion of practical work; as a result the facilities are under less demand.

The change to strengthen curriculum time for English and mathematics has been enhanced by our Teaching School remit and through it our School Direct programme. We have secured high-quality NQTs trained within our framework.

✥JS: Teachers have more freedom to choose how they wish to shape the curriculum to meet their pupils’ individual needs. With this freedom comes the opportunity to introduce new technology to facilitate more creative applications of the curriculum. Schools need to be mindful not to react to pressures to purchase technology without linking the benefits to their wider strategy. There are now a lot of free and low-cost technology resources schools can use so it is a case of schools embracing these resources wherever possible and continuously assessing the value they bring. 

✥SY: Balancing budgets has always been a challenge but the recent curriculum changes have not necessarily made this more difficult. Recent changes in English, Maths and ICT have been quite significant. The main budgetary consideration relating to these changes has been training, ensuring that staff are equipped with the necessary skills and knowledge to deliver quality teaching. This takes time and usually involves taking the teacher out of class for a period of time which in turn incurs additional costs associated with supply cover. The need to invest in training has been essential for the development of skills and knowledge, but also from a motivational perspective. The changes to the ICT curriculum have been very daunting to non-specialist teaching staff as the new curriculum talks about de-bugging and programming for instance.

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

✥ND: The real question is whether the tech is able to support your key function as a school and this links to the planning/strategy part. High-quality technology by itself is not going to make a huge difference in schools but if the thinking behind the use of tech is sensible, you can make very good use of technology that is not at the cutting edge. Of course, schools would like to be able to trial things to see what can be done and there is never enough resource to make this happen. Yet if you are sensible about your thinking you can often find a way.

✥JS: Yes, current budgets do allow schools to provide high-quality tech by making good choices. Schools need to ultimately look at the strategy behind their technology use, choosing the right solution that fits well with their students’ learning and teachers’ own approach to teaching.

✥PY: High quality doesn’t necessarily equal high cost and any equipment investment should consider the overall total cost of ownership, taking into account costs such as maintenance, consumables and any operational efficiencies the kit can bring. By investing in the right technology schools should be able to achieve cost savings. For example, high-speed print equipment can lead to schools being able to reduce the number of print devices they operate, which in turn reduces overheads and admin time.

‘Smart’ software can lead to enormous reductions in print costs. A number of UTAX multi-function print devices (MFDs) come with three-tier printing, which saves schools money on colour printing. The cost of colour print is generally based on 20% coverage; however, if you’re printing a document with a small amount of colour you’ll still be charged the same high price. The three-tier system means that there are three billing options. Schools can print out with up to 5% colour coverage – or up to 20%, or more than 20%, and the costs reflect that.

✥SY: Generally no. By its very nature technology is always developing and consequently it is extremely difficult for a school to keep abreast of this. Schools try to ensure that the latest and most up-to-date technology is accessible to students, however, as soon as the resources are committed and the investment made then something new becomes available. Like with many other organisations budgets vary considerably and ultimately the resources available depend upon how effectively those budgets have been managed and what priorities have been agreed by the school’s leadership team and governors. Recent changes mean that schools are now required to pay for a variety of things that were once provided by the Local Authority. Things such as SEN services, general maintenance and even getting bins emptied. Given these extra demands on a school’s budget and the need to maintain standards typically means that maintaining fundamental requirements such as staffing structures are the priority, so quite often investment in technology is further down the list.

Do you think all schools now see investing in technology as a priority?

✥EM: We are certainly treating it as a priority in order to support the curriculum and enhance pupil learning. Recent curriculum changes have forced teachers and schools to learn about and implement coding classes much sooner than they would have done if it had been an optional subject. We currently don’t operate BYOD, but due to recent successes in a UK competition called Teen Tech we have been lucky enough to win substantial cash prizes which have enabled us to fund tablets, LEGO Mindstorm EV3’s and, hopefully later in the year, Raspberry Pis to enrich both STEM in the curriculum and extracurricular STEM, with a focus this year on engineering and robotics clubs. I feel being involved in competitions such as this, besides the financial rewards, allows the students the opportunity to be innovative, entrepreneurial, work in teams as well as collaborate with academia and industry representatives in a safe way, while protecting their intellectual property. But choose your competitions carefully, not all of them protect students’ IP the way Teen Tech does!

✥PY: We’re certainly seeing a move towards technology becoming a priority investment. Manufacturers have recognised the importance of the education sector and school business managers are now better informed of the benefits technology can bring. Together, the importance of technology has been highlighted. The best suppliers have moved to a solutions-driven approach, rather than simply selling equipment, which has helped schools to realise the full potential of good-quality technology.

✥SY: All schools understand the importance of technology. Schools not only need to have good-quality technology to compete with other schools, but it’s also vital for the children’s motivation and enthusiasm as most of them are surrounded by it at home – tablets, laptops, phones, social media – and therefore, schools need to keep up to date.

Are businesses working with schools able to offer top-quality services that stay within budget?

✥ND: It depends on your relationship with the business and if you work closely together, as people do, then it can change because they know you. On the other side of the coin, I am aware of some suppliers quoting huge prices to schools they do not have a relationship with so I would always recommend asking around and seeing which other schools work with the business. These conversations should be standard as they will help you and the supplier have honest conversations at the start of the engagement process so there are no surprises in terms of service.

✥EM: We do have businesses working alongside us and often their key focus is helping us achieve value for money. Through experience, those consultants offering ‘extensive experience’ of the education sector or ‘educational experts’ are the most valuable as education is quite unique. We also have strong links with MOSI (Manchester Museum Of Science and Industry) and are active in inviting local STEM ambassadors into school, as inspirational role models, to encourage our students to consider careers in STEM.

✥JS: IT in schools gives them the opportunity to partner with external businesses enabling an enterprise-quality service that does not necessarily come at an enterprise cost. With the enablement of cloud computing, this can now allow schools to come either within, or under, budget at the same time as embracing up-and-coming educational learning technology. Our fundamental belief is that high-performing schools deserve high-performing IT.

✥PY: Most definitely. The best suppliers will work with schools to provide solutions that are cost effective and efficient, forging trusted long-term relationships in the process. UTAX partners work with schools to rationalise hardware line-ups, ensure document workflows and managed print set-ups work within existing IT networks and maximise budgets by controlling the use of colour printing, reducing duplicate printing and ensuring pupils can only print during class time, saving energy (and therefore cost) and precious space. Partners will also work to ensure schools maximise the potential of their hardware. We all know that MFDs can be used to copy and print, but what else do schools want them to do?

✥SY: Not in all areas, but there are some very good examples from both a local and national perspective. Typically schools do not employ procurement professionals so they are often dependent upon the support of local government and national buying consortiums such as YPO, ESPO or Crown Commercial Services. These organisations provide schools with access to a range of contracts negotiated at a national level thereby ensuring best value, peace of mind and compliance to procurement regulations. Framework contracts such as RM1599 allow schools to contract for the latest technologies, leveraging extremely good pricing and, in most instances, saving money. 

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

✥ND: First is that you have a clear purpose about the use of technology in schools. Without it, it is very hard to make difficult and necessary decisions on cost effectiveness and the quality of technology. The second thing schools should do is to try and find other educational institutions that have solved a similar problem to the one they are facing and learn from them. Finally, be prepared for failure. Something will go wrong. The device may not work as well as you intended. There may not be enough training to make effective use of the technology when it first appears. When this happens, people lose heart and start to question the whole process. If you recognise the possibility of failure at the start, you will be able to deal with it when it arises. I suggest conducting a ‘pre-mortem’ and create a scenario where you are two years in the future and the project has failed. Once everyone has contributed to the reasons for failure in this thought experiment, I suggest working out what can be done to minimise the potential damage.  

✥EM: Speed of connectivity. Capacity of data storage. Security.

✥JS: Schools moving forward need to think about sustainability: it’s not just about the here and now, it’s about the longer-term focus on the school’s ICT strategy. Educational impact: choose something that is positively going to impact as many students and teachers as possible. Keeping it simple: whatever it is in technology that is needed, it needs to be simple both to embrace and to use to ensure maximum adoption.

✥PY: ONE – You need to find a trusted supplier who will find the right mix of hardware and software for the long term, ensuring overall ICT strategies are looked after while rationalising and reducing hardware fleets if required. The best suppliers will help schools utilise as many features of the technology purchased, maximising return on investment, and have a track record of education sector success.

TWO – Does your supplier have a track record for integrating top-quality technology seamlessly and back it up with expert technical support and training? After all, technology is only fit for purpose if it’s installed and used correctly.

THREE – Document security is of the utmost importance so think about the security of data within the school environment. It’s worth noting that an MFD is essentially a PC: it has a hard drive, it has memory, it’s processing data and that data can remain on the machine. You should therefore be looking for robust data security software to protect your devices from unauthorised and potentially harmful access.

✥SY: Quality – having a quality product or service which is reliable. Support – working with a partner(s) who will assist in the procurement of technology through to the supply and ongoing maintenance ensuring value for money and maximum return on investment. Futureproofing – ensuring that an investment made today is sustainable into the future.