While some schools may fear signing their ICT off to a contractor, for others it has brought greater peace of mind. George Cole reports
It's a controversial proposal for a Labour government to be making: managed services for school computer systems. The idea is that private companies will, for an agreed fee, provide hardware, software, installation, training and support to schools. And the Department for Education and Employment has given it official backing by introducing the notion in the National Grid for Learning strategy.
Either schools can pay for such a service or a local authority will negotiate a deal for all or some of its schools. Someone else will have the hassle of providing and maintaining the systems, sparing teachers to do what they do best - teaching. But there are those in education who feel uncomfortable about relying heavily on private companies.
Marshall Anderson, a software designer, is concerned about such an arrangement: "The profit motive and education don't sit together. Companies have been known to pull out of a market because they weren't making enough money."
Others are more enthusiastic and believe the lure of managed services will remain powerful provided healthy competition exists between the suppliers and their offerings. Mike Rumble, chairman of NAACE, the advisers' association, says: "We welcome the interest from industry, provided it's competitive and the motives are right. Many schools will welcome the concept of having a service they don't have to worry about."
Brendan O'Sullivan, managing director of Xemplar, a specialist in providing equipment and support for education, recognises the pitfalls, but says:
"Issues such as choice and competition are valid concerns, and that's why we believe managed services should be open in terms of architecture and content."
The ICL-run MEON (Merseyside Education Online Network) was one of the first commercially managed services, and initially involved 10 secondary schools and two adult learning centres. It has received funding of up to pound;4.77 million via a Single Regeneration Grant from Brussels.. ICL provides each school with 30 multimedia PCs, unlimited e-mail and Internet access, integrated learning software and video-conferencing.
Support is provided by EONIC (the Education Online Information Centre). Schools receive curriculum materials. Gerry Bedford, head of Knowsley Hey School, is very enthusiastic about the scheme: "The biggest gains are in software development and training. To get support from a large company like ICL gives me great comfort and the deal is very good value for money."
Broughton Hall School is another MEON client. The headteacher, Sister Mary Columba, took a risk in joining the scheme but believes the school is getting very good value for money. "I have been very impressed," she says, "and it does give you a sense of security and peace of mind." Danny Blunstrum, head of business and information studies, says: "Thanks to the support and training offered by ICL, there are now staff using computers for the first time. It's been a great motivator."
However, managed services do not come cheap. Broughton Hall pays pound;20,000 a year. And this is a subsidised price: the real cost is probably double that. Alan Jervis of Manchester University says: "With many publicprivate projects, there's often money for the first school on the block. But when the other 15 schools in the area start asking for the same things at the same price, private companies start getting twitchy."