Why shun the experts?

31st March 2000 at 01:00
Schools struggle too long with technology. Managed services - computer care to the lay person - means schools can concentrate on surfing not wiring. Jack Kenny and Peter Batt answer your questions

Why is buying and maintaining school computers so costly and complicated?

Keeping your purchase working, particularly two years down the line when all sorts of hideous software programs have been installed and the machine has taken to crashing at regular intervals, is no fun.

Multiply this by 30 machines - a modest school network - and maintenance can start to approach a full-time management job and a sizeable cost in both time and money.

Many schools still rely on their ICT co-ordinator to get problems sorted. But this largely technical pursuit can easily distract these teachers, not really experts, from their primary role: focusing on how schools can use their technology to teach and deliver their curriculum and National Grid for Learning objectives.

So what is the solution?

A number of schools and local education authorities have bought in what can loosely be described as managed services from companies such RM, Xemplar, ICL and Viglen.

Two high-profile service contracts were awarded by South Lanarkshire and Dudley, and many people high up in these two authorities speak highly of what has been achieved.

What are managed services?

Broadly speaking, a managed service is an agreement where LEAs or schools hand over the day-to-day management of their computers and related equipment. The packages offered vary according to the provider and the schools' needs but, in general terms, they will include most if not all of the following:

* new hardware with software installed and working;

* a network, including cabling, hubs, servers and workstations;

* technical support, maintenance, servicing and repair; l advice and staff training;

* and network protection, such as prevention or removal computer viruses.

In Dudley, which signed up RM in a private-finance initiative scheme two years ago, the deal goes much further than a hardware and software service agreement. Dudley's payments to RM are linked to such factors as student attainment, the extent of ICT involvement in lessons, as well as teacher attitudes to ICT.

How do we know we will get a good service?

BECTA, the schools computer advisory agency, accredited 12 companies certified providers last October. It gives a firm its stamp of approval after assessing a company's expertise and experience - more names are set to join the list.

All the accredited companies sign a framework contract drawn up by the agency. They have agreed that their services will be governed by BECTA's standardised set of terms and conditions. The agency wants to ensure schools and local education authorities will receive good value for money. As part of the deal, the companies can only provide technology approved by BECTA - this covers not just computers, but printers and other equipment too.

The whole managed service concept is that the schools receive an ntegrated package of hardware, software and facilities, with a clear contact for help and advice.

How much do managed services cost?

Of course, there is a price tag. A network of 30 machines, together with a server, internet, email and printing capabilities, could easily set a school back by as much as pound;30,000 over three years. However, depending on the package agreed, this cost can be spread over the course of the contract.

With so many calls on their budgets, schools may be put off by such an amount, particularly when set against the price of simply going to one of the bargain basement "box-shifters" and buying some kit.

However, it should be remembered that even with those schools who go it alone, the spending does not stop after a computer is purchased. Evidence from the private sector suggests that the cost of purchase equates to only one-fifth of the total cost of ownership, which includes maintenance, staff hours and downtime. For a long time, schools have not accounted for the time put in - freely - by staff.

On top of this, there is the cost of maintaining the sanity of your hard-pressed teaching colleagues, as well as enhancing the learning experience for pupils. Try putting a price on these factors.

Those who favour managed services say that once the issue of cost is resolved, clients soon discover that this is money well spent.

How do we go about getting a managed service?

In order to get a deal backed by BECTA, schools or local education authorities must sign a customer-access agreement, another standardised contract drawn up by Becta.

Doing so means that the customer is effectively registering with BECTA, which will issue the organisation with a customer number, which must be quoted to the accredited service provider. This may sound like an overly-bureaucratic process, but it is designed to ensure that only bona fide educational institutions can purchase services from the NGfL scheme.

So, now it has become an officially recognised customer, the school must draw up a specification for the service it requires. BECTA provides advice on the NGFL website at http:managedservices.ngfl. gov.uk. The site also includes search facilities to help buyers compare the different providers' offerings.

Once the spec is set, schools must invite a minimum of three companies to tender (though they are not obliged to ensure they get replies from all three). When the selection is made, the school places a service order with the winning company.

Of course, schools can develop their own agreements with these or other companies, but the agreement will not be recognised by BECTA.

So how have managed services fared so far?

The official BECTA-approved scheme was launched last year, but so far only two managed service contracts have been agreed: between IBM and Dumfries and Galloway and Scottish Borders and RM.

Though this may be cause for disappointment in official circles, there has still been a steady stream of authorities and schools signing up for non-BECTA recognised services.

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