The Government says managed services will push prices down and force value for money up. Chris Johnston reports
The Government claims to have heralded a new era in the way schools buy information and communications technology with the launch of its "managed services" programme.
The initiative encourages schools to buy all their IT needs - computers, software, networking, Internet access, servicing, technical support and training - from one supplier for a fixed price. The aim is to drive down prices and push up value for money and take the onus of network and technical support away from teachers so that they can get on with their main priority - teaching.
Schools can now choose from 12 managed service suppliers that have won Department for Education and Employment (DFEE) approval.
Charles Clarke, the education minister who launched the scheme before moving to the Home Office in July, heralded the plan as: "A new model of public service procurement," and warned that future funding for the National Grid for Learning depended on high quality and value for money.
Partnerships between schools and the private sector are the way forward said Heather du Quesnay, who chairs the British Educational Communications and Technology Agency (BECTA), the quango charged with taking the lead on the DFEE's multi-billion pound plan to create a National Grid for Learning.
Thirty-four companies submitted a tender for managed service supplier accreditation and BECTA, which managed the tender process, judged the four-terminal networks of 17 bidders on price, performance, conformity with specification and ability to solve technical problems. The 12 bidders to become certified suppliers are: Akhter Computers, Apple Xemplar, Bull Information Systems, Centerprise, Clifton Reed Consultants, Comtec, EIS Kent (part of Kent County Council and the only non-commercial provider), Elonex, High Symons, IBM, RM and XMA. Their prices range from pound;11,000 to pound;23,000.
Clarke said managed services meant schools would no longer have to make hand-to-mouth decisions about buying computers, nor shoulder all the risk or be locked into contracts for years.
Managed services buyers are expected to seek tenders from three suppliers. Contracts will be for three years and can be extended for a maximum of three years. Suppliers will be checked each year to ensure services are up to scratch; if BECTA approval is not renewed, schools can switch to another provider. A second phase of testing will provide an opportunity for firms not on BECTA's list.
Although schools do not have to buy from an approved supplier, it is understood recipients of future school improvement funding (pound;105m is earmarked for the Standards Fund in 1999-2000) will be expected to justify their use of non-kitemarked organisations.
There were some surprises:ICL, Capita and Viglen, all education suppliers for a number of years, failed to gain approval. ICL said it had learned lessons that would be applied in the future, while Viglen refused to comment.