Do current budgets realistically allow schools to provide high-quality tech?
Many schools are prioritising essential staff and operating costs over IT investment as budgets face the toughest real-terms cuts in a generation (totalling £3bn by 2020). The new national funding formula aims to redress this to some extent as schools in rural and suburban areas look set to benefit from historically low levels of investment. However, while some schools will be in a better position to procure technology – although this is far from a given as costs rise – this will be at the expense of schools in major towns and cities. Single school academy trusts (70% of the total number of trusts) are particularly vulnerable: they are precluded from exploiting the economies of scale offered through larger trusts or local authorities.
Do you think the majority of the sector is prioritising edtech investment?
Technology is an enabler of change, yet schools, colleges and universities have differing priorities. Schools and colleges face tight budgetary constraints which negatively impacts edtech spend, although growing pupil numbers and college mergers mean some are investing to keep pace and enable wider savings, e.g. via outsourcing IT services. By contrast, universities face greater competition than ever due to the abolition of student caps, declining number of 18 year-olds and record level fees. Most are therefore investing heavily in new buildings, facilities and technology to ensure they attract students and give them the best possible experience for the most cost effective means possible.
Most technological products evolve and improve, causing existing models to become out-of-date and even obsolete.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?
Traditional school IT estates often grappled with the dilemma of when to refresh hardware/software in order to gain as much return on investment as possible. This can be managed though ensuring any spend is properly planned and timed, although schools would be best served in embracing managed hosted or cloud based solutions for several core systems (e.g. office, e-mail, MIS) and prioritising network spend so that they can access the latest services without the need to refresh their entire IT estate.
Can suppliers offer top-quality products and services that stay within a school or university’s budget?
Yes so long as suppliers demonstrate how they can utilise technological developments as a way of offering an improved service at a lesser price. For instance, schools requiring basic software such as e-mail, office suite and storage can take advantage of cloud based solutions (e.g. Google or Microsoft) which make use of legacy hardware they already own, yet without the associated costs which come with maintaining a larger IT estate (so long as they can ensure adequate network capacity and security for data stored in the cloud).
What three things do schools need to think about when looking for the most cost-effective, high-quality technology?
1. Schools must ensure they decide whether a product or service they require needs to be bespoke or whether an off the shelf solution is suitable. Then they must be certain as to what key functions it needs to provide.
2. Any spend must be justifiable by providing a clear positive impact upon teaching and learning. This extends to backend IT systems; for instance how will replacing our MIS benefit delivery of teaching and positively impact learning? The answer may be as simple reducing administrative costs which could be reinvested into teaching.
3. Academies and maintained schools should explore existing framework agreements which could save time and resources, although on the flipside they should also consider whether they would gain better value and/or quality if they went directly to market.
Dr Robert Stoneman is education analyst at market intelligence firm Kable