It should all just work together...but it doesn’t.” Toks Oladuti is a frustrated man. As director of information systems at Francis Holland Schools’ Trust in London, he oversees the back-end software and systems that are needed to keep 1,000 pupils and 200 staff going about their business.
Yet, despite spending four years at the front line of ed tech, and being told over and over again that “this is the software that will change your working life”, Oladuti only has to look at his own home technology to see how far behind his work environment is.
“In my personal life, I can use my iPhone to control my heating, but in the education world, getting two systems to talk together is really difficult,” he says.
That’s just one of many problems schools report with the software they use for their educational and administrative needs. Since the late 1990s, so much of what a school does has migrated online with the aim of making things easier and more efficient. But, often, the reality is one of frustration rather than alleviated stress.
So where are the providers getting it right and where is there significant room for improvement? For Oladuti, one of the biggest frustrations is that most software systems are not interoperable.
So, for example, some information management systems that schools use to hold all relevant data on staff, pupils and so on, will not allow the information to be moved back and forth between the various bolt-on services that schools also use, such as for timetabling and school trips.
This usually means that IT staff like Oladuti have to build bespoke tools to allow the data to move between the two, which is time-consuming stuff and is liable to stop working if either of the two providers updates their software.
Given that we’re now in 2017 when, as noted, most consumer technology works with far greater efficiency, why do so many schools still appear to be operating in the technological Dark Ages?
Lack of pressure on providers
Oladuti believes it comes down to three things that are yoked together: lack of pressure on technology providers to heed user frustration, a willingness of the majority of school staff to muddle through with whatever they have, and a lack of competition in the market to help IT staff threaten their suppliers that they will leave for a rival if what they provide is inadequate.
“I’ve been told so often by various providers that an update is coming that will allow interoperability between platforms but it never does. And, on the rare times it is rolled out, the functionality is actually very limited,” he explains.
“I think vendors can get away with this because most end users don’t push back at them. Part of this is that many schools just don’t realise what they should be getting and are happy enough with how everything works, even if it means more work for them. Schools just become used to it so they are not as vocal as they should be.”
For individual pieces of software, though, Nicola Russell, business manager at Pallister Park Primary in Middlesbrough, says some companies deserve credit. She has first-hand experience of the difference good software can make to how a school is run.
In 2014, her school installed a platform called CPOMS, with software that focuses on monitoring child protection, safeguarding and a whole range of pastoral and welfare issues.
She says that it has made a big difference to how staff operate. “I know leadership and management, as well as the staff responsible for the welfare of the children, use it in its entirety every day,” she says.
This is just one of several platforms in place, with others including Agresso for financial management, Evolve for educational visits and, most recently, a sign-in platform called InVentry.
But she acknowledges that getting software up and running is not always easy – the upheaval for a school can be substantial. So, along with better interoperability, you can add smoother and faster installations to the list of requests.
A third factor is price. All those with responsibility for IT in their school are well aware that new technology at the back end could have a big impact.
However, schools are operating on tight budgets and, even if the money is found, most are hamstrung by ageing legacy IT estates that mean they have to keep updating, adapting and bolting on new tech when possible, which is never an easy task.
For the latter issue, it is often a temptation just to end all contracts at the same time and start from scratch, but usually this is logistically and financially impractical.
Yet for a lucky few, this has been possible. Rob Hember is the network administration manager for the Tor Bridge Academy Trust in Devon. In 2010 – a veritable aeon in IT terms – his school received funding from the government – then formed by Labour – as part of the Building Schools for the (now discontinued) Future project. He says it was a once-in-a-career opportunity.
“From an IT point of view, it was an amazing opportunity as we had a huge budget, the likes of which I had never seen before nor will again. We benefited massively and have been the envy of many network managers across the city ever since,” he explains.
The school was savvy about how it spent this money, creating an environment that has moved with the times. “We had a brand new infrastructure, which included many new technologies: [the kind] you would normally see in a more corporate setting. The bulk of our network environment is virtual and we have an excellent wireless infrastructure enabling guests and students to use a ‘bring your own device’ system.”
The schools also used the money to buy a large Apple estate and it employs Citrix to provide virtual desktop access. All in all, it’s given the academy a huge advantage and one that Hember says has helped changed the attitude that staff have towards IT.
“There was a time that IT only mattered when it went wrong. I am happy to say that now the senior management team and the governors are keen to at least maintain the infrastructure we have and, when it’s viable, improve it,” he says.
But, as Hember readily acknowledges, Tor Bridge Academy was one of the last to benefit from a financial era that seems a distant memory now.
So rather than being the vendors’ fault, is the problem a lack of funding to do IT properly? Not quite. Certainly, starting from scratch solves many issues but that does not let vendors off the hook – IT managers still believe they should do more. Yet they also say that, sometimes, teaching staff could do more, too.
Because even when management signs off on new software and IT staff go through the pain of getting it installed, there is no guarantee that teachers will actually use it.
Indeed, one IT manager, speaking anonymously, says this can often be the biggest hurdle: “They [staff] just won’t comply with new ways. It is incredibly frustrating.”
This harks back to Oladuti’s view that too many teachers prefer to muddle through with outdated systems, including some paper-based forms, because it’s how they’ve always worked.
Of course, though, there is a generational elephant in the room here: younger staff, whether administrative or front-line teachers, are not only comfortable using new technology but also expect it.
Hember has seen this at first hand: “One thing that is becoming clear as time goes on is how much more willing the newer, younger members of staff are to use IT in their teaching, be it from using Netbooks for research to using Skype to communicate with other schools, often abroad.”
The reluctance to embrace new technology usually comes from older staff, as the anonymous IT manager reveals: “I’m not saying that all older staff will not embrace the new systems but all of the people who will not embrace the new systems are the older generation. Younger staff do not see IT systems as a barrier or addition to work – usually just a change in practice – whereas the old generation see it as additional work.”
If this is true, then, in time, the majority of staff will be tech savvy. That could be the game changer for software in schools.
This could help create a wider environment in ed tech where there is an awareness among vendors that if they don’t meet the needs of their users they are going to hear about it. It could be the industry transformation needed to force suppliers to be more responsive to issues raised by their customers.
Some vendors claim that they are doing this already. Graham Cooper, from Capita SIMS, notes that the company’s system already integrates a vast array of tasks so interoperability is built in. He adds, for example, that gamification and big data are two areas that could have a big impact in the ed-tech world and they are areas his company is actively exploring.
“At the moment, most software is used by asking a question and getting an answer. But if the software could proactively say to you ‘You’ve done this for child A and it had this result, why not try it for child B?’ or ‘At present your class is tracked for these results in the end of year exams, but if you did this you could increase performance’, that could have a big impact.
“It’s the sort of thing that the Amazons and eBays of this world are doing right now. We are looking to see if and how we could use this sort of technology, too.”
Meanwhile, gamification could see pupils awarded badges for attendance records, exam success or extra-curricular activities that they collect on their smartphone.
Such ideas might seem a little way off right now, or may never come to fruition, but, as noted elsewhere in this ed-tech guide, there is no shortage of up-and-coming firms looking to make their mark by offering new and innovative services to schools on numerous emerging trends – companies such as Capita may not, in future, be kept on their toes by schools but rather by rivals that are constantly circling.
Will it be those rivals that eventually force a better deal for schools? Will it be an ever-more-knowledgeable client base that instigates the change? Or will schools simply have to spend more money if they want a corporate-style service?
Inevitably, the answer is not simple and it’s likely that all three elements will play a part. However, it remains unclear if all three are likely to happen in the near future.
Dan Watson is a freelance journalist