Dudley has been granted Pathfinder status under the Government's Public Private Partnership (PPP) programme (formerly known as the Private Finance Initiative or PFI). What all this jargon means is that Dudley will contract out its entire schools ICT programme to a consortium of private companies. The consortium will deliver, manage and support Dudley's ICT needs for up to 10 years.
The Government is keen to set up a National Grid for Learning (NGL), which is described as a mosaic of interconnecting networks linking Britain's schools, colleges, libraries, museums, galleries and other institutions. It's a laudable aim, but also an expensive one - there are 31,000 state schools alone, for example. It's no surprise that the Government sees itself as providing the leadership for the grid, while looking to partnerships between the public and private sectors to fund the bulk of it.
The DFEE's Education Department Superhighways Initiative (EDSI) and the DTI's Schools Online project can be seen as early prototypes for an NLG. In each programme, schools formed links with private companies, which provided funding and support. A good example is the Bristol Education Online Network (BEON), which involved BT, ICL, the University of Exeter and 11 schools in the Withywood area of Bristol. BT and ICL are now in rival consortia bidding for the Dudley contract (ICL with Xemplar and Telewest; BT with RM).
In her speech at this year's BETT technology show in London, Gillian Shephard, the then Secretary of State for Education, challenged companies to use the PFI programme (as it was then called) to offer bulk discounts to schools.
But Nick Jepson, RM's strategic projects manager, says that there is more to PPP than simply offering lower-cost equipment: "It's about transferring the risk to the private sector and offering value for money. Indeed, the costs may be higher, but the learners get access to many more services and a higher level of products and services than they could have done under the previous arrangement."
Dudley is an ideal place for an initiative of this type. It has 45,000 pupils in 81 primary schools, and 16 secondaries and special schools. It also has a thriving education centre, and IT is seen as an important element in learning. The council has been running an 11-year capital programme that has pumped almost #163;7 million into IT in education, with investment coming from schools and the education group. In secondaries, the ratio of students to computers is about 10:1. There are two computers in every primary classroom. Dudley mainly uses Acorn computers, although there is a smattering of PCs.
"The result of all the investment is that we have high expectations when it comes to IT," says Brian Kennedy, Dudley's senior adviser. "The problem we have is that our equipment is ageing, with the result that our expectations and requirements are getting ahead of the quality of the equipment we can provide. In some ways, it's a nice problem to have, but it's also frustrating."
In late 1996, Kennedy and the council's senior assistant adviser investigated the possibility of using the PFI to improve its IT
programme: "We met with the cabinet office and were awarded Pathfinder status in December 1996, " says Kennedy.
Pathfinder status is exactly that: it is a recognition that an organisation is embarking on a pioneering programme that could be replicated in other parts of the country.
"To paraphrase a popular Government expression, PPP is about negotiation, negotiation, negotiation, " says Kennedy. Dudley embarked on a wide consultation programme talking to teachers, governors, pupils, librarians, gallery staff and others: "We asked people, 'What services would you like? What would you like to do?' This was a bit of a culture shock because all too often you're given the tools and have to adapt them to your needs. And of course, they don't always fit."
At the beginning of the year, companies were invited to bid for the Dudley contract, which could be worth around #163;50 million pounds over 10 years (the consortia also included Bull and Data General). At the end of September, the bidding groups submitted their final responses. The winning group is expected to be announced this Christmas.
Brendan O'Sullivan, managing director of Xemplar, says the relationship between a consortium and a school or local authority has to be a partnership: "It's not just about dropping some boxes, collecting the invoice and saying 'Good luck'. It's about both groups working together to deliver the best IT service possible." The winning consortium will also be partly paid on achieving set targets: "These are not about getting a certain number of computers into each classroom, but producing learning gains and improvements in education, that's how success will be measured." Deciding what learning gains will be measured, and how, will be the result of negotiations between Dudley and the winning consortium.
Alan Teece, general manager of ICL education, says: "I think we'll see publicprivate mixes because both groups have much to offer each other." Nick Jepson agrees: "The private sector has a lot of expertise in delivering this type of project."
The arrival of PPP in educational ICT has been welcomed by the British Educational Suppliers Association (BESA). But BESA's director-general Dominic Savage says: "New money will be necessary because most schools will need to invest in training and new or upgraded networks, as well as enabling them to afford the ongoing costs of the service. At least part of this must be government money." But Savage adds that any extra money must be firmly linked to schools demonstrat ing that they have a plan for proper implementation and training: "I'd like to see schools required to report their progress and the application of resources in the annual governors' report to parents."
The PPP programme involves commitments on both sides. The Government thinks that schools or local authorities using the scheme should be committed to significantly expand their expenditure and offer a well-defined route into the home market. Brian Kennedy says: "We know how much IT costs; we have a complete audit of equipment and its use. We also know the level of competence. We have a good feeling for what is going on." Kennedy adds that Dudley may need to raise extra money under the PPP programme. Investigations into possible new revenue streams are being investigated: "It could include carefully-controll ed advertising, sponsorship or allowing business to use our facilities. We'll also open the programme up to our GM schools," he says.
Dominic Savage would like to see the Government establishing two or three franchised national consortia, which would also draw on regional and local partners. It is expected that, by Easter 1998, negotiations between Dudley and the winning consortium will have been completed, with a pilot programme starting soon after. By autumn term 1998, the new partnership will begin in earnest. It's fair to say that by this time next year, the eyes of the educational world will be watching Dudley as it embarks on a brave new world of educational support and funding.