On the line;Software

12th March 1999 at 00:00
A professional technology deal is now available to schools, says Niel McLean

I have been encouraged to be more controversial in these columns, so can I begin by saying that Scotland will not win football's World Cup in my lifetime, that Posh is the most talented Spice, and that, as a frequent rail traveller between Coventry and London, I can see the real benefits that privatisation has brought to the service. I feel a lot better for that and can sense the letters of complaint flooding into the TES offices. Up and down the country, IT co-ordinators will be exchanging emails - "Did you read that McLean's bit in Online? A bit strong I thought. He'll be suggesting that software aimed at the home isn't always suitable for the classroom and that schools need local support next." Now that's out of my system, back to the more prosaic task of implementing information and communications technology (ICT) in 25,000 schools.

January's BETT exhibition set me thinking. The overriding impression was of an industry that has come of age. The two men and a dog outfits of the past have been replaced by significant commercial players. I must admit I miss some of the more idiosyncratic software and hardware (the Banana interface anyone?), but it has to be right that the industry has become more professional, and therefore more sustainable. This also begs the question of whether the educational world has moved to a similar professional, sustainable footing. It's interesting to explore some of the parallels.

I think it was John Harvey-Jones, the well-known business troubleshooter, who said: "Anyone can do business selling pound;1 coins at 50p each". The more business you do, the more you lose until bankruptcy eventually looms. Schools aren't faced with this scenario, but the message is clear. For business, it means identifying any hidden costs and being clear about the opportunity costs - the things that you cannot now do because you are doing something else.

In schools' terms, the hidden costs of ICT are the time teachers spend struggling with unfamiliar software, the time ICT co-ordinators spend wrestling with networks, cost of repairs and upgrades, time on the phone and all those things that hit you after you thought you'd paid for it all. In many ways these costs are truly "hidden". The time teachers spend outside their teaching does not appear on any balance sheet, which brings me to opportunity costs. Put simply, each minute a teacher spends fixing a printer is a minute not spent teaching.

Now I'm not suggesting that every minute of a teacher's work should be spent in front of a group of children. I can remember how an hour spent fixing the technology felt positively therapeutic after a day chasing coursework, checking uniforms and trying to explain why balsa wood is technically a hard wood, even though it is soft. However, sometimes I wonder what would have happened if all the time we spent just getting the technology to work had been spent on teaching and learning instead. All of which brings me, by a roundabout route, to managed services.

The concept of a managed service was developed in the Government's challenge paper "Open for learning, open for business". Essentially it's a new way of supplying ICT to schools which brings together supply, installation and maintenance in an integrated package.

Productivity and networking software will be included, but not content - decisions about which curriculum software to buy should be made by the teacher. A key part of BECTA's work will be testing and giving certification to these managed services. Schools will be informed of which managed services come up to scratch, and BECTA could remove approval if the service fails to deliver. Schools can also move to another managed service if contracts are not properly fulfilled. Contract arrangements will be simplified if schools go down a managed service route, and the advantage is they can plan on the basis of realistic and fully predictable lease or instalment costs.

No one is suggesting that schools must purchase managed services - they will still be able to buy from a range of suppliers as before - but now they have the opportunity to put their ICT purchase on a real professional and sustainable footing, one that recognises the real cost of ICT, manages those costs and realises cheapest isn't always best. Well, nothing controversial there then?

Niel McLean is head of the schools directorate at the British Educational Communications and Technology Agency

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