Broadclyst Primary in Exeter has 420 pupils and an impressive ICT infrastructure that includes 300 computers, 15 servers and a Sharepoint Virtual Learning Environment (VLE). Yet all this equipment is managed without the school employing a single ICT technician.
As education budgets become increasingly stretched and school management teams look for ways of reducing costs, is relinquishing ICT technician(s) a viable option?
Jonathan Bishop, Broadclyst Primary's headteacher, says his school has not employed an ICT technician for many years.
"There is no easy answer to getting a high level of ICT investment into schools and then keeping that investment current through replenishment," he says. Broadclyst has managed to do this by opting to lease its ICT equipment, with a five-year replacement cycle.
"It is a false economy to buy computer equipment and then pay someone to maintain it, rather than invest in good-quality, warranted equipment," Mr Bishop adds.
The warranties provided to Broadclyst by its leasing companies include on-site support. The school also trains its staff and pupils on how to maintain ICT equipment.
"They have a greater responsibility for the ICT. Obviously, we can't do everything, but if I have a specific technical job I can purchase external technical support," says Mr Bishop.
But he admits that leasing is not for everyone. "I'm not saying you should fire your network manager and start leasing," he adds, "but for some schools, it could offer a way of getting the best value for their ICT investment."
John McLear is the founder of Primary Technology, a primary school-focused ICT services company based in Bradford. It supports thousands of schools globally, offering a wide range of services, including ICT installation, maintenance, support and web-based services.
"There is no one-stop solution for schools - every school has different needs and as technology is still maturing we have to respect that," he says. "But technical ICT work should be kept to a minimum. Any school that has a technician for more than a day a week should be considering using them to share best practice with other schools and help to deliver the curriculum."
Mr McLear says schools can reduce ICT technical support costs by using hosted web services and virtualisation, which is the creation of a "virtual" operating system, storage device, network or server to distribute computing loads. This means schools can effectively remove most of their servers, which means less hardware to manage.
He adds: "Get staff and pupils to be responsible for the day-to-day ICT maintenance, such as updating Windows or software such as Flash."
Another strategy is to ensure you invest in ICT equipment that is fit for purpose. A computer with plenty of RAM (the computer's main memory), for example, is less likely to crash when using a memory-intensive application than a machine with insufficient memory.
Mr McLear says: "Schools can live without an internal technician, but you have to be extremely confident and it requires a different vision and strategy from delivering the curriculum with ICT."
But schools should think very carefully before deciding that they can live without in-house ICT technical support, says Russell Dyas, spokesman for Edugeek, a community of ICT support professionals.
"ICT is more than just what happens in the classroom. There is the email system, catering system, MIS (management information system) and the learning platform, among others. Getting rid of your technician could be a false economy.
He adds: "I can see why people might see cutting their ICT support staff as a way of saving money, but they don't see all the back-end tasks they do to ensure that the ICT runs smoothly.
"Some people think: 'We don't have any problems with our ICT, so why do we need all this support?' They don't realise it is the support that makes everything run smoothly. Outsourcing support is an option, but schools need to look at the total cost."
Rob Harrison, notebook scheme manager at Perins School in Hampshire, says his school could not function without its ICT technician. The school has more than 1,000 pupils aged 11 to 16, three ICT suites, and more than 700 pupils have their own laptops, which they take home.
Mr Harrison helps to manage the notebooks, along with a term-time notebook scheme technician.
"Most parents have paid for their children to have their own laptops, and without good support the scheme would be useless," he says.
"If you use outside support, you are relying on the person being there when you call, and that isn't always the case."
The school has reduced the pressure on its ICT support staff by training teachers and pupils in how to use the ICT equipment and deal with minor problems.
"When pupils first get their computers, they spend the first month working on the basics, such as backing-up and using email. We also run out-of-hours training sessions for parents and pupils. CPD (continuing professional development) sessions are also held regularly for staff, and there are posters and help sheets in classroom that deal with basic ICT problems," adds Mr Harrison.
Miles Berry, senior lecturer in ICT at Roehampton University and vice-chairman of Naace, the IT teachers' association, says that while costs are important the schools that do best are those which have a partnership between the teachers and the technical staff, whether in-house or outsourced.
"It's about working together to get the best for their pupils. Schools should also look at moving their technical support to a wider community that can include pupils, teachers and parents. You can't have the technician solving all the problems," he concludes.
GOING IT ALONE?
- Leasing offers many benefits, but it requires a long-term commitment to a contract.
- Sharing technical support among a group of schools could help reduce costs.
- If you outsource your technical support, check exactly what you get for your money.
- Training teachers and pupils to deal with minor ICT problems can reduce the pressure on ICT support staff.
- Make sure the ICT equipment you buy is powerful enough to handle class activities.