Computers' tender touch;Management;Interview;Ian MacDonald

16th October 1998 at 01:00
Education authorities have begun investing huge amounts of money in information technology, but how? Raymond Ross talks to Ian MacDonald, depute director in Glasgow, which has put the contract out to the highest bidder.

The largest council in Scotland has put the supply of computers for secondary schools out to tender under the publicprivate partnership scheme.

Glasgow has enormous financial problems, covering as it does an area of multi-deprivation. This year the city has had to take drastic measures, cutting the number of secondary schools from 36 to 29. It has also sought pound;130 million of private capital to bring those 29 buildings up to scratch, pound;24.5m of which will go towards a massive expansion of information and communications technology.

"Putting the tenders out to building companies and ICT providers at the same time, gives us the opportunity to bring the two best companies together," says Ian MacDonald, depute director of education in charge of resources. "The publicprivate partnership is the only road open to us for this level of funding, and is appropriate for specialist areas like developing ICT."

Competition for the contract is intense; computer companies can spend anything up to pound;1 million on bids. The benefits for any successful company would be enormous.

The four short-listed ICT providers tendering for the Glasgow contract are RM (Research Machines), ICL, Xemplar and Mitel, all of whom have a "strong educational track record," according to MacDonald. A final decision will be taken in January or February. "Two of the companies have the ability to handle a large number of problems 'off-site', which means that 70-80 per cent of repairs could be done remotely. Whoever gets the contract will provide pound;15 million of hardware and will run a managed service we will pay for," says MacDonald.

"The managed service should mean an improved service, with a telephone helpline for schools, and repairs done within four hours. There will be payment reductions for poor service."

Between pound;7-8 million will be used to refresh the system after five years and annual running costs could add up to pound;1.5 to pound;2m. One unusual aspect of the contract is that companies are required to prove demonstrable educational gains over a range of skills such as literacy, numeracy and ICT. "We want payment of PPP linked to learning gain," says MacDonald. "So a proportion of the payment would be linked to better results, for example, a 3-4 per cent gain in the first year, and 20-25 per cent gain by the end of five or six years."

Glasgow will need pound;24.5m over the next five years, according to its own estimates, just to bring its school computer stock up to date. Only 2,250 of Glasgow's 7,820 computers are "modern" enough to be integrated into the proposed new centralised system.

However, MacDonald remains confident that the city will meet targets for the National Grid for Learning, with at least every secondary school being linked to the grid via the Internet by 2002 and every secondary teacher and pupil having their own e-mail address.

"The PPP capital funding applies only to secondary schools, but we are hoping to take primary school policy forward within our own resources, as well as pre-five and special schools, to the required degree," he says. "We could see a successful secondary school intranet extending into primary by 2002 or thereabouts. We don't have a specific date. The secondary target is huge."

That target includes spending on hardware, networking, setting up a city-wide intranet linking all the schools and a managed service working in conjunction with Glasgow's advisory service to develop "content rich software".

"Each secondary school will have a dedicated computer lab at a ratio of one for every first year class in order to develop core ICT skills," says MacDonald. "This means each pupil in the school should get five or six periods per week in the lab. But we are also aiming to have a modern computer for every teaching area or classroom, that would have multi-access and could run video and CD-Rom. For a school with 800 pupils, this should mean five or six labs plus 80 machines."

The target date to begin implementing the programme, along with the building upgrade, is August 1999, and Glasgow hopes to see installation completed within the following year. "Our overall approach is to raise educational standards. We want to see ICT making a significant contribution to literacy and numeracy standards.

"We are also keen to address attendance. Where a family moves around the city regularly, through our tracking system, their children's work will follow to the appropriate school," says MacDonald.

"We're providing schools with up-to-date equipment for the next 10 years, which will include a five-year 'refresh'. A four or five-year cycle should keep us abreast of developments with our machines being able to run the best of the new software.

"The ability to put CD-Roms on hard disc, for example, will mean that they can be updated and are multi-accessible. We'll have this by 2000 and that means any youngster in Glasgow could access it. We're working towards the virtual library where you will be able to access the best of current materials across the curriculum. So most subjects will benefit," says MacDonald.

See Tactics amp; Trends 98, an eight-page feature on ICT in Scotland inside this week's Online Education

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