How to tame ICT's insatiable appetite for your school computers. "Isn't it a question of priorities? How important is ICT?" If you are in a school where the ICT is about as reliable as a fairground watch you are not alone. Filling a school with kit is the easy part, and for that we pay the professionals who bring in the boxes and walk away counting the cash. Getting it all to integrate and work properly, to make your life easier and the students' work more stimulating is the hard part and for that many schools still use the amateurs.
Some time ago Mary Marsh, head of Holland Park school, West London, said that she liked to think of ICT as one of the services that came into her school, like electricity, gas and water. All of these are essential and we leave them to experts. Why then should we deal with ICT in any other way?
One professional way of dealing with ICT is through a managed service. A company is contracted to give a level of service determined by you. They have targets to meet and their income is determined by their success. However, finding the right service is not always easy and if you get it wrong it could be expensive. RM and ICL have set up services that have defined the area and RM's work in South Lanarkshire and Dudley has given a new slant to the management of ICT.
David Forrest , head teacher at Duncanrig school, south Lanarkshire says:
"It's simple. The main feature of the managed service is that the kit is working and the teachers in the classroom teaching. A managed service takes the burden off a teacher."
Few schools really believe what much of industry knows: the real cost of owning a computer is much higher than the purchase price. Most schools cost ICT by considering only the price of hardware. It is more realistic to look at the background costs: training, maintenance, software, connection costs, integration costs, running costs, down times, staff costs. There is evidence to suggest that in the commercial world the capital cost of a PC represents only one-fifth of its yearly running cost.
A basic managed service is the supply of computers, networking, Internet access, operational software, installation, testing and certification of readiness for use, servicing and technical support plus initial training and commissioning, all within a price range and certain parameters.
BECTA, the Government's agency for its learning grid, has looked at systems critically, tested some providers of ICT services and certified 12 ofthem last year. More will be certified this year; 17 are under scrutiny at the moment. In effect, BECTA is doing preliminary testing for schools to ascertain that value for money and a good technical standard is being offered.
However, schools and LEAs and other organisations so far have not overwhelmed BECTA with interest. Only two BECTA-approved managed services have so far gone through. The first, awarded to IBM and DIANnet and worth pound;1.9 million over three years, is for 16 secondary schools in Dumfries and Galloway, Scotland.
Some blame the bureaucratic nature of the process. Owen Lynch chief executive of BECTA claims that it was always known that such a shift in schools' thinking would not happen overnight. Managed services is a concept that has taken years in the commercial world to be adopted.
The second BECTA-approved managed service is one that will be managed by RM and the local council staff for the Scottish Borders Council. The council has 72 primary schools and nine secondary schools, with nursery classes in 14 of the primary schools. The target is one PC for every 15 pupils in primary schools and one PC for every five pupils in secondary.
Helen Cotton from the Scottish Borders council says: "We looked at all the options. We would have had to go through the complex European tendering process; the BECTA system provides a bypass to all of that. RM are doing the technical support and the Council are providing the administration support. We will not have to take on extra staff" The contract will ensure that the hardware is maintained for three years and support will be through RM with the council support staff doing the network management.
More contracts are coming through BECTA and by the end of this year it should be possible to see how well the idea is working. The teachers in the Borders might be among the first to see that ICT can be reliable and that they can have the confidence to use it to underpin most of their work.
* REASONS TO CONSIDER MANAGED SERVICES
ICT is professionally managed
Managed services allow teachers to teach
Teachers in the classroom will have confidence in the equipment
Value for money
Constant monitoring of the service
Take the worry out of ICT
Concentrate on using ICT for learning
Contracts drawn up by experts
Predictable ICT costs
Decrease risk to the schoolincrease risk to the supplier
Takes the risk out of innovation