There was a time when computers in schools was something of a fringe activity, managed by enthusiastic teachers in their spare time. But now, new technology has moved into the mainstream and computers have become increasingly complex, with multimedia, networking and the Internet making their mark. Little wonder that attention is turning to "managed services" - leaving the maintenance of your computers to an outside organisation. It takes the strain and worry out of the equation: a school or authority gives the responsibility for all or part of its technology facilities to a specialist company. As well as the supply of hardware and software, managed services may include installation, integration, management, support and training.
"There is a continuum from the person who installs a single computer and offers on-site maintenance, to others who hand over all their ICT responsibilities," says Nick Jepson, RM's strategic project manager. His company offers three tiers of support. The first level includes installation, teacher training, hardware maintenance and repair and trouble-shooting. The next stage also includes network management, including password changes, applications management and anti-virus protection. It also offers management and support of the school intranet (an internal network based on Internet standards). The third level adds strategy and planning for future resources, and a framework agreement covering the future procurement of hardware, software, Internet and upgrades.
This summer, the Department for Education and Employment will announce an approved list of managed service providers, but RM is ahead of the pack. It has secured (with BT), a pound;43 million contract with Dudley local education authority under the Public Private Partnership (PPP) initiative. The contract involves providing and managing the ICT needs of every school under the authority's control.
RM has also won a pound;5 million managed service with South Lanarkshire Council which will involve equipping and supporting all of that authority's 21 secondary schools. The first phase of the programme began last November and will be implemented in each school during the 19992000 academic year.
But what is the attraction of managed services? Rea Wallace, business systems manager for education in South Lanarkshire, explains: "As networks grow, you can no longer rely on the goodwill of the staff to support them. Teachers should be focusing on teaching and not on the technology."
Nick Jepson says managed services are all about passing the risk of the technology on to the provider. RM also has its sights on individual schools as well as councils and authorities. It has won a contract with Holland Park School in west London, which has around 1,500 students aged 11 to 19 and 150 staff. The headteacher, Mary Marsh, explains why she has opted for a managed service: "We haven't fully out-sourced all of our ICT because we own the kit. But as far as we are concerned, the boxes (hardware) are the easy part: it's software integration and networking that is the problem."
olland Park has a large computer network with Windows NT servers. "I've been told that in terms of complexity, it would have six full-time technicians supporting it in a private-sector company. We obviously don't want this level of support," says Mary Marsh.
"The big problem is that if you train someone up to support and manage your school network, you then find that you either cannot afford to pay them because they have become a highly skilled member of staff, or they disappear into the private sector, which is more lucrative. " The cost of a basic managed service for an average secondary school with a single-server network is about pound;12-15,000 a year, about half the average wage of a network manager. That alone is as very strong argument.
RM also plans to offer its services to primary schools, where the need for managed services is probably even greater, as fewer teachers have the necessary ICT skills. (Other companies, Akhter for example, are also doing this.) Many will ask what's in it for the companies. "We obviously have to make a profit and it does give us the opportunity to sell other services," admits Jepson. With so much money sloshing around in education ICT, there is a lot of interest from private sector companies in providing managed services.
Jepson welcomes the planned kite-marking initiative: "There's a lot at stake and making the wrong move could be very costly." He adds that while RM has already started grabbing a share of the managed services market, the company welcomes competition: "As far as we're concerned, the more companies that join us, the merrier."
It's a sentiment other companies will welcome as there is unease about the hold RM has on the schools market. Already the clear leader, the trend towards managed services could make the company even more dominant. The only other successful bidder has been ICL. which has just won the pound;12.5 million contract to cater for the ICT needs of the 49 primaries and nine secondaries and local libraries in Moray, Scotland. The project includes around 1,000 PCs linked to video-conferencing facilities, training and even security cameras. ICL has just restructured its education department to focus on managed services.
Xemplar bid unsuccessfully for the Dudley contract. Nick Evans, its head of marketing, says: "We will be bidding to become an approved provider of managed services because we understand education. Choice is a key element, and we believe in trying to give people the option of solutions that meet their needs. This doesn't necessarily mean buying new kit. It's not about selling boxes to put on the desktop."
He warns of the massive resources needed just to make a bid. "The Dudley bid took an astronomical number of person hours and probably cost us tens of thousands of pounds. It was very expensive. A lot of the work involved providing information about our operations. The good thing about the plans for approved providers is that it will cut a lot of this process out so schools can jump straight to the next step.
"Schools have to be careful when they select someone to manage their ICT - the cheapest price could mean that any educational added value goes out."
* BETT CONNECTIONS
Akhter: stand C46 01279 821200 www.akhter.co.uk
ICL: stand E40 0117 9842018 www.icles.com
RM: stand E50 01235 826000 www.rmplc.net
Xemplar: stand E34 01223 724724 www.xemplar.co.uk