A dream that can turn into a living nightmare

14th April 2000 at 01:00
They're not cheap and computers can turn into a real monster if the cost of running them is not fully calculated. George Cole examines how you can avoid some of the pitfalls, while he and other writers look at the options open to schools in more detail.

One of the classic marketing techniques is known as the "puppy dog sale". You buy a small, cute animal that costs little to feed and, before you realise it, it has grown into a giant beast that eats you out of house and home.

This situation applies to many things we purchase - from cars to CD players - where the running costs can soon overtake the initial purchase price. When it comes to purchasing information and communications technology equipment (ICT), the situation is even worse. Computers are not cheap, so you start off your purchase with a fully grown animal and end up with a pack of them that can consume most of your school's resources.

The issue of the cost of ownership is something all schools face once they embark on an ICT programme. The snag is that many of the costs are hidden and schools can suddenly find themselves faced with a spending dilemma: do you opt for books or computers? Another teacher or a new network?

The Gartner Group, an international consultancy, estimates that the PC and software represent only 16 per cent of the total cost of ownership, with the remaining 84 per cent going on infrastructure, management, training and support. "Schools are often using any additional ICT funding to manage their networks rather than for buying extra equipment," notes Nigel Paine, chief executive of the Technology Colleges Trust (TCTrust).

The British Educational Suppliers Association (BESA) has just conducted a survey of schools' spending habits. BESA assistant chief executive Eileen Devonshire says: "We have every reason to expect that the developing ICT-based learning solutions will be good value for money if rationale for purchase is centred on learning as opposed to technology-led investment.

"However, we don't believe this will ever equate to cheap," Devonshire says. "Generally, hardware and telecoms costs are falling with the expectation, and in some instances the reality, that content costs are becoming a much higher proportion of total spend, not forgetting the significant costs for training and professional development which will need to be met once NOF training monies are spent.

"For schools to be confident that they will be able to manage this transition they will, at the very least, need the current level of funding to continue. If we look at spending on all types of resources - ICT and traditional - BESA's research (March 2000) shows that UK schools are spending pound;950 million from their delegated budgets, with the Government adding pound;500 million through special grants, a figure which is rising," adds Devonshire.

This total equates to around 7.5 per cent of spending on schools - and must be maintained after 2002 when the second comprehensive spending review results will determine funding levels. The advent of special grants and the expectation of them has encouraged a reduction in budget resource spend from the total budget. New research shows total primary school budgets are up by 4.7 per cent, however, the increase in what they spend in their resource budgets is 2.7 per cent. Secondary school budgets are up by 5.3 per cent, with an increase in resource budgets of 3.7 per cent.

"Schools should rightly expect to maintain and hopefully increase spending, and, by then, would expect all funding to be part of delegated budgets, to return full spending responsibility to schools - so whole-school development plans and school-based purchasing practice develops in sophistication to embrace the broadest range of technological opportunities for their students," Devonshire concludes.

One thing is clear: ICT expenditure can consume a high proportion of a school's budget. Peter Phillips, headteacher at West Monmouth School in Wales, estimates that his school's ICT expenditure accounts for around 25 per cent of its managed budget: "If you believe in what you're doing, ICT commands a fair share of a school's budget," he says. The Government has injected a large amount of money into ICT and education. Funding for the National Grid for Learning (NGFL) will total pound;1.6 billion over three years, and the New Opportunities Fund (NOF) is providing pound;230 million for ICT teacher training.

"There has been substantial and generous funding of ICT, but we are not resting on our laurels," says a DFEE spokeswoman. "Funding needs to be a continuous process and schools need to grow their ICT programmes organically."

The TCTrust's Paine says government funding is welcome, but he is worried that some schools are not looking ahead to two or three years down the road when central funding in educational ICT could be reduced or even halted.

Schools' expenditure on ICT has certainly grown over the past two years. According to DFEE figures, primary schools spent an average of pound;5,700 on ICT in 1999, compared with pound;2,600 the previous year (all figures exclude ICT expenditure on management and administration). For secondary schools, the figures were pound;38,200 and pound;33,300 respectively.

The money for this expenditure came from various sources, such as the NGFL standards fund, which accounted for 34 per cent of primary school ICT funding, and 10 per cent in secondary schools in the 199899 financial year. Money from parents, PTAs and the private sector sponsorship accounted for 7 per cent of the primary schools' ICT funding, and 3 per cent in secondary schools, and the signs are that the influence of this sector will grow over the next few years, as ICT expenditure continues to rise.

Ray Fleming, RM's secondary schools marketing manager, says: "Around 10 years ago, IT was essentially a PC and perhaps a network. And a secondary school used perhaps half a dozen software packages. Today, ICT is more complex - you've got the Internet, ICT being used in almost every department, and hundreds of software titles being used." Ray Fleming also notes that schools are becoming more sophisticated in their approach to ICT expenditure: "It used to be a case of 'We've got an IT budget, now what shall we spend it on?' Now, it's needs driven - 'What do we want to do, and how much do we need to spend to achieve it?'" One of the biggest concerns for schools is the difficulty in planning and managing a school's ICT budget. Some costs, such as communication charges and software purchases seem almost limitless, but some schemes have helped to control costs. BT's School Internet Caller, which provides unlimited Internet usage during designated hours has been criticised, but BT says it has meant that schools can plan their communications budget. Some cable companies also offered fixed Internet connection charges.

In September 1999, Microsoft launched its School Agreement scheme, which is open to schools and LEAs. Under the scheme, schools simply count the number of PCs they have and pay a fixed fee (around pound;40 a year) for each machine. Each PC receives Microsoft Office, Encarta Multimedia Encyclopedia and Microsoft Back Office, as well as any upgrades. Telford and Wrekin was the first LEA to sign-up for the scheme.

Some schools are opting to lease their ICT equipment and Paine notes:

"They're getting sophisticated about it. For example, schools are leasing machines and then giving access to a training room in the evening to offset some of the leasing cost. Others are working with small local companies who are building computers to order."

Another route is to opt for a managed service (see page 14), whereby an external party takes responsibility for a school's ICT infrastructure - equipment, installation, management and support. RM now runs managed services for over 200 schools: "Many schools like managed services because the cost is capped. It's a fixed cost you can budget for," says Fleming. Some schools have opted for partial managed services, whereby an external company installs the ICT equipment, but the school maintains it.

RM says that failure to recognise the additional cost of ICT ownership can seriously reduce investment value. For example, without the appropriate levels of training and support, the system will not work properly, which can result in frustration and disillusion.

Owen Lynch, chief executive of the British Educational Communications and Technology Agency (BECTA), says: "When it comes to considering the cost of ownership and the value of ICT, schools should be focusing on the practice rather than the infrastructure. You have to create the practice that drives the infrastructure. If ICT can support teaching and the quality of learning, then it becomes indispensable. And when something is indispensable, there is a compelling reason for investing in it."

George Cole is a freelance journalist.

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