The money is mind blowing - pound;2.2 billion in the first year. With sums like this on offer the big facilities management companies start to salivate. Make no mistake, their involvement could completely change the face of ICT in schools.
One aim of Building Schools for the Future (BSF) is to take away the management of ICT from schools and release the technology for learning. The loss of autonomy will not be without its pain and problems.
Two of the first solutions for the BSF project have quite different approaches. The Chelmsley Wood area in north Solihull will be regenerated in the next 10-15 years. The unusual aspect of this BSF work is that the procurement of the ICT has been separated from the building part of the work and will be done first so that the demands of ICT will influence the building design rather than the other way around.
David Butt, information strategy manager at Solihull LEA, says that the aims are for every child in the area to go to a newly built school, and to completely revolutionise learning. Butt is sensitive to the concerns of schools. He is aware that the schools that have already successfully implemented ICT will need to know that the changes will improve things for them. Also, those schools that have not been so successful will need to feel that the new managed service from RM will be of benefit to them. Butt has involved schools from the start and RM has much experience dealing with large-scale managed service ICT projects in Dudley, Northern Ireland and Scotland.
Bradford LEA is taking if not a leap in the dark then at least a journey into the unknown in its provision of ICT for its pound;400 million BSF programme. Under a contract, to be signed shortly, it will be using Sun's Java Enterprise System. This is a network of thin clients - jargon for boxes that are desktop computers or laptops but lack the hard disks and processors. The thin client is connected to a server, and no computing is performed locally. The brain power is in the central server where all the applications are stored and where all the students' work will be kept. It is a system that is, as yet, untried on a large scale in an education authority in the UK. Schools, of course, use a wider variety of software applications than businesses.
Sun Microsystems is part of the Amey-led IntegratED Bradford consortium, the preferred ICT supplier to Bradford Metropolitan district council. In the first phase 4,500 ICT devices will be placed in the first three newly-built schools due to open in 2008. Each student and teacher will have a Sun Java Smart Card that can be inserted into the terminal so that the server recognises the individual. The system registers them and recognises where they are in their work. They will be able to access the system anywhere in the school.
Neil Hadfield, Sun's business manager for education, claims that teachers will find the set-up very attractive. Hadfield argues that central control means that teachers will not have to sort out individual computers. "Trying to manage a network is not easy," he says. "Fixing a PC problem in the middle of a lesson can be frustrating and distracting. The terminals are silent, no fans are whirring and there is no necessity to cool the room.
"We are not saying you must use thin clients or else. We are building something that has to last for years. What Bradford is hoping to do is to put themselves in the new ICT environment rather than the one that existed in the past. They are doing their job of being a pathfinder. In two years, when the schools are built, it will be widely accepted that this technology is the way forward."
There will be more variations on the BSF theme but teachers will be lucky if they are involved in the decisions. Autonomy for schools, Virtual Learning Environments in the classrooms, conglomerates building the schools - all this is far above the heads of teachers in staffrooms. These developments are seismic changes and yet a meaningful debate has not even started. Perhaps that is the intention.
The most significant part of RM's work with Solihull will be that the building designs will follow the identification of the schools' ICT requirements. RM already has extensive experience as a managed service provider (MSP) in Dudley, Northern Ireland and Scotland. In Dudley the RM-led consortium runs ICT services for 105 local schools. RM also provides infrastructure software and services, and computer hardware to all 900 primary and 237 post-primary and 48 special needs schools in Northern Ireland.
"Thin client" technology ("light" desktops and laptops with the software running from a central server) is not new. In spite of its attractive nature it has not been taken up by any LEA, although some schools have been pioneers. Sun has had success in the business world with this concept.
Sun's Neil Hadfield says the world has now changed: "In the last decade putting in (PC) networks was the best thing to do. The thin-client model only really works when when you have the high-speed connections that have only recently become available. Plus, we are now used to the idea that we can find almost everything we need on the internet."
There are reports that not all software will run easily on thin clients, especially multimedia software that normally needs to access a hard disk.
Hadfield argues that the system is based on open standards and will work with anything that meets those standards.
* Partnership for Schools is the organisation responsible for delivering BSF www.p4s.org.uk
* BSF guidance www.bsf.gov.uk