would you prefer we reply here, of email you personally?
I'm a reporter at Computing, a business technology magazine based in London.
We've been following the comments which came in response to an article we published at the end of February - The Lure of the Public Sector -written by an external contributor.
We'd be very interested to hear people's thoughts about BSF, so if there's anything you like to talk to us about, please don't hesitate to get in touch.
would you prefer we reply here, of email you personally?
Email is probably better.
...then you don't have to come back here to harvest the replies?
I'd say post 'em here and get a discussion going, which, afterall, is the whole point of this place... Unless there's a compelling reason for keeping your thoughts from other EduGeek members, but who on here wants that?
Why don't we just post our responses on here for us to discuss if we like, and email the same message to Computing?
Computing_editorial (10th March 2008)
Feel free to have a discussion.
BSF will take the personal touch out of the computer services provided by in house support. A managed service will reduce the amount of people in technical jobs within education, most of the technicians will just go around replacing toner cartridges and rebooting machines!
It's a rather depressign scenario for all of us and I want out of the education sector before managed services strike.
Also, I am sick to death of the young people and the tendancies they have of 'disrespecting' computers and the staff that upkeep them.
which school are you from iatkinson? I'm at Wilfrids,...
…it’s amazing how much you can rant over a lunch break ;-) Well, a bit of writing therapy never hurt anyone!
Schools work in a unique way with regards to ICT needs – we have a hugely varying array of end-users – the needs of the Data Administrators, is harshly different to that of the ICT teachers, to that of the D&T teachers, to the music teachers, to the media studies teachers. Very few private sector companies have such a variety of day-to-day, in-house users. We don’t get to spend a year analysing a new technology, or a new piece of software, to see if we should implement it – We work on the bleeding edge of technology. It’s not unknown for us to be given a complex piece of software, and to be asked to make it available network-wide, to 400-odd workstations/laptops, for 1500-odd end-users, within 48 hours. This just wouldn’t happen in the private sector, but IT professionals in schools make it happen. We work for comparatively poor pay, working large amounts of overtime, frequently for little thanks, and a fair amount of harsh treatment by our end users.
Why do we do this? Because of what our organisation’s aim is – the education of our future generations, the future of this country. Whatever part of education someone works in, the aim is the same, the teaching, learning, and wellbeing of children under our care. The majority of IT professionals in schools could go and work for a private sector company, earn more money, and get more appreciation; however, there is immense job satisfaction in knowing you’re playing a part in shaping the future, in contributing to the education of young people. Seeing new technology you implement benefiting students, working with students on projects and seeing them advance, actually seeming them grasp something, a concept, a process, they didn’t before. You don’t get that anywhere else, and that, is the beauty of education.
Private sector companies are different, and with absolutely no disrespect to them, their aim is very different as a business to that of a schools – their aim is to make money, to make a profit – they’re responsible to their shareholders for making a profit, as we’re responsible to the students and their parents for providing them an education – as employees, we try to accomplish that aim to the best of our abilities.
Outsourcing one private sector companies IT needs to another has had many problems as we know, however, their mission-statements, their aims, and the nature in which they embrace IT tends to be comparable at least. This simply does not transfer across to the education sector however – schools innovate far faster than a company does, it’s what we must do to improve and delivery effective learning. When we think of money, it’s in the vein of “can we afford to do this for our students?”, a company thinks, “how would this affect our profits?”. Whilst both are reasonable questions in their respective sectors, when the two crossover, it’s disastrous.
An innovation in a school being decided, not by what’s best for the students, but by how much it affects a company’s profits? A company not caring if it makes a loss, but just wanting to do what is best for young people? The premise doesn’t seem to make much sense does it? However, this is exactly what Government is forcing on schools with Building Schools for the Future (BSF).
At first glance, BSF is a brilliant idea – we only need to take a look at the physical state of a lot of schools to see that they’re in serious need of new buildings, purpose built accommodation instead of the old buildings and falling apart classrooms many schools currently use. I severely doubt you’ll find anyone who’d disagree that BSF in this regard is a brilliant concept – and it’s this that the majority of Joe-public hears of when, if at all, they hear of BSF.
However, hidden below the depths of public knowledge of BSF, lays the fact that as part of these brilliant proposals to give every state school the building facilities they so desperately need, IT facilities in schools are to be outsourced, placed in the total control of the aforementioned for-profit companies. That no longer will schools have any direct control over the IT facilities and support in their school, that schools’ will be forced to adopt a one-size-fits-all approach by whichever company wins the bid with the Local Authority. The initial shock and disbelief of such a move soon gives way to sheer panic when the harsh realism of the issue rises to the surface.
Lets look at the overriding reason that those in favour of outsourcing school IT give when defending the ICT portion of BSF – that some schools have a vastly inadequate IT provision, and – that as ICT is now integral to teaching and learning – this inadequacy is having a severe adverse affect on education. You will probably fail to find any IT professional in education who will disagree with this statement, anyone that has worked in the sector for a significant period of time will have seen schools whose IT systems and facilities are woefully inadequate to support teaching and learning, and are hideously under funded, usually by ICT funding given to schools being spent on other areas by the management. There is absolutely no doubt that something must be done about these schools, that their ICT provision must be brought up to an acceptable level. This is the reason ICT BSF supporters will give you for their project.
However, ICT BSF is not focused on these schools what-so-ever, it’s focused in on every state school, regardless of the IT facilities offered. It doesn’t matter if you offer the best IT facilities in education in the country, BSF will remove your facilities, years of investment, taxpayers money, down the drain, and place it entirely into the hands of the external company. As a for-profit company, the only financially viable way for BSF to be of benefit to them, is for them to decide on an average, base, setup of IT systems and facilities, and to place this system into every school. There can be no major variations within schools as the company would have to support those variations, resulting in highly increased support and staffing costs, and thus in, probably not only reduced profits, but in a financial loss. These companies tendered for the ICT BSF project for one reason, and one reason only, to make money. Making money is not a bad thing, when it’s at the expense of our future generations’ education, it is.
Whilst those schools whose IT is woefully inadequate will benefit hugely from ICT BSF, bringing them up to an acceptable baseline – those schools who are offering either a similar level of IT currently, or are offering facilities that are more advanced than the BSF baseline systems, will find themselves crippled in the most harshest of ways. Schools with above baseline IT facilities will see those systems scrapped, and replaced with mediocre, baseline offerings, and for all schools, their ability to be innovative with teaching methods and interactive learning using ICT will be eradicated. Teachers will no longer be able to have ICT resources and systems adapted to enhance their teaching, as the saying goes, they’ll get what they’re given.
You don’t have to look all that far to see the huge contradiction that is happening in schools – in an age where the Government is pushing for teachers to be innovative, to find new and exciting ways of enthusing our young people to learn and develop, where the Government is pushing Specialist Schools Status, for schools to specialise in areas, to be different than the school next door, to offer students that little bit of originality – the Government is taking an area of schools that now underpins a large percentage of how that innovation and teaching is done, and telling them that they now have no control over what is offered, that they must all take an average offering, having no ability to be independent, no ability to innovate, no ability to go just that extra mile to offer students something new, something radical, to enhance their education.
Teachers can find a piece of software that would make the learning of a particular topic much more enjoyable and informative for their students and want to use it in a lesson in 2 days time – and the majority of IT professionals in schools will make this happen, I know I have on many occasions. Under BSF, not only would the idea of implementing a software title on the network within 2 days be met with ridicule, but unless it’s on the companies list of supported software, the request to have this software implemented at all will most likely be denied. If the software is on the supported list, it will also most likely be a chargeable task. Not only will schools have to pay the company for providing the IT systems, anything that is additional to the basic package, will incur further cost bases on the number of students on roll. For teachers to be truly innovative, their only hope would be to use their own personal laptop, buy resources out of their own pocket, and teach to students that way, bypassing the managed service offerings. Having discussed BSF with some teachers, (who are in the large part, blissfully unaware of what is coming), this is exactly what they think they might have to do to effectively teach.
The very nature of teaching – working with teachers and students – means that a high level of support is needed – the majority of work of a school’s IT department is supporting end-users in the use of IT resources and in resolving problems. Teaching is time critical, if you have an hour to teach a lesson, to make effective use of that time, every moment is important. Support in the use of IT must be as instantaneous as possible – under BSF where the IT systems are managed by a remote company, this will simply be impossible.
Although schools may have an onsite technician to themselves, or more likely shared between a cluster of schools – their ability will largely be restricted to general maintenance of equipment. Whilst they may have the ability to reset forgotten passwords (a huge issue in schools), any problem on the network deeper than this, will require a call being placed to the companies helpdesk, logged, and looked at in due course – and there goes a lesson of teaching for the student with the problem.
Whilst the external company will have to meet contractual obligations and an SLA, they won’t be accountable to the school. IT professionals in schools are there, directly accountable to the management, and regardless of contract, will generally do whatever is reasonable to make sure that the ICT facilitates teaching and learning to the highest possible level.
Those supporting BSF play upon the fear of some in schools about what would happen if the IT department suddenly weren’t there, what would happen to the IT then? Leaving aside the huge leap of faith that is required to believe that one-day the whole IT department would be on a bus that crashed over the side of a mountain – or won the lottery and upped and left – this is simply irrational thinking – what would happen if the entire History department disappeared one day? Or the whole Finance department? There would be no-one within the school to do their jobs then either, since the Geography teacher can’t teach History, and the librarian can’t manage the school finances. Whilst schools can bring in supply teachers to continue teaching, though not to the same level as the permanent professionals, so a school can bring in external consultants to continue running the IT systems, again, though not to the same level as the permanent professionals. IT in schools is no different to the History, Finance, or any other department within the school. The scaremongers simply pick upon IT because it can be seen as a foreign concept by some, and they play upon that fear. IT systems are based upon a relatively finite set of systems realistically – either Microsoft, Linux, Mac, or a combination – with various features of those implemented to provide the basis for the network, with scripts etc. employed as necessary. Whilst the exact details and topology of the networks can change in varying ways, a good IT professional, especially one that has experience of similar school systems, should be able to come in and maintain the status quo of that system.
What I find makes ICT BSF interesting is when you consider how the process has been carried out, and the viable alternatives that have been ignored.
Consider the fact that the people best placed within education to understand what the requirements of IT systems are within schools are the IT professionals that work in the sector, then consider that IT professionals within education have been actively blocked from having any influence what-so-ever over the ICT BSF process, over the procurement process and over the requirements. At every step of ICT BSF since inception, the one group of relevant parties that have been consistently ignored and stonewalled, both by the Government representatives of Partnership4Schools, and by the tendering companies, has been those who are best placed to understand the needs, and the issues, the IT professionals already working in the education sector. If the aim of BSF was truly to improve ICT within those schools that are providing a substandard service, then surely the first people who P4S and the tendering companies would want to talk to, to tap into the knowledge of, to bring across to their side to assist in this noble act, would be the IT professionals themselves. Instead, we have been consistently ignored since day one. Even now – as representatives of the winning bidders go into the current round of schools affected to plan what is necessary for the installation of their systems, they actively stonewall any involvement of the schools IT professionals. The only reasonable explanation for wanting to snuff out our involvement is the fact that they’re only to acutely aware that we would ask the tough questions, make the harsh points, point out the glaring omissions and failures in the concept of ICT BSF, show how this is going to have a hugely detrimental affect to the teaching and learning within the majority of schools who have perfectly acceptable IT systems, run by professionals specialised in providing ICT in an educational environment.
Turn your eye then to how other areas within a school are monitored by the government. The government inspectorate of schools, OFSTED, go into schools at regular intervals, experts (although some may debate that fact!) in teaching analyse and monitor the teaching of all departments and the management over a period of time, at which point a report is made – if the school is significantly failing in their responsibilities, steps are taken, such as placing the school in special measures – resulting in the management being replaced by a “super management team” if necessary, or the failing teachers being subject to competency proceedings – those failing elements are removed, and experts are put in their place to bring the failing school up to the acceptable baseline. The school’s Finance Department is itself regularly audited by financial experts to ensure everything is satisfactory and above board. Again, if it’s not, measures are put into place, and competent replacements are put into place. When those schools are performing at, or above, the required standard, they’re left alone to continue doing what they do. In both of these ways, a state of play is established where each facet of the school is at the acceptable baseline, or better – an excellent state of play. However, ICT BSF is akin to OFSTED putting all schools under “special measures”, regardless of if they’re a successful, or a failing, school.
However, implementing such an idea for ICT in schools has consistently been ignored by those making the decisions – IT professionals experienced in the education sector are those best placed to make a judgement on the state of a school’s IT facilities and systems. It would be simple (compared to BSF anyway) to combine a group of school IT Managers into an IT audit team, and send 1 or 2 of them out, either with, or separate to, an OFSTED team, to inspect each schools IT – if a school is found to be below the acceptable baseline for IT systems that has been set by those who have the knowledge, that school’s IT could then be taken into a version of “special measures” – taken over perhaps by the IT department in a local school who have been established as a “centre of excellence” – that school given extra funding and staff to bring the failing school’s IT up to the acceptable baseline or better. That way, a state is established where all schools have baseline IT or better. This would work out considerably cheaper than BSF, and would allow schools to retain their innovation, and for those who wish to be at the forefront of IT, to be way and above the baseline, as they are now.
Alternatively IT within schools could be brought under the control of a consortium of local school IT departments – a cross-school, super IT department being formed, if you will. Again, schools could then continue to have control over their IT systems and innovate as they wish, adapting technology to fit in with the particular needs of their teaching, whilst being safe in the knowledge that that IT is under the control of a large group of educational IT professionals with the knowledge of the unique requirements of education.
The current state of play, however, is simply that IT professionals within education are being consistently ignored by the Government and those involved with and responsible for BSF – effectively stonewalled at every opportunity, silencing us from exposing the huge weaknesses and failings of BSF. Any comment from IT professionals in education is merely met by the claim that we’re merely after protecting our jobs, since IT professionals in education will be eradicated by BSF – again though, this is simply FUD – as IT professionals we have many more job opportunities open to us than merely education, plus a large percentage of us will be taken on by the winning company anyway. The issue is nothing to do with our jobs – it’s about bring to peoples notice the huge threat that hangs over schools ICT, the threat to innovative teaching, something that will leave a lasting, detrimental, effect on education for generations to come – the experience of educational IT professionals lost, innovative teaching with ICT destroyed, well designed IT systems trashed, and replaced with baseline systems – the BSF stakeholders active refusal to engage with schools IT professionals over BSF is simply proof positive of their fear of being exposed for the huge failings in their plans. Why else would the people who are heads and above the most knowledgeable about what they’re allegedly trying to achieve, be muted at every opportunity? Why else would Head Teachers who wish their school also to remind outside of ICT BSF control be faced with the prospect of the Government then withdrawing a significant portion of funding from that school?
Like many ideas from this Government – the initial idea is good – those with failing IT systems do need action taken – however, by not wishing to take the time to develop a suitable solution, by tacking it onto the back of a construction project, by not wishing to sort the good, from the bad, schools, by wishing to lump every school under the same hat with a one-size-fits-all approach – the Government is simply doing a horrendous amount more damage to education, then the problem they’re trying to fix in the process.
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I find it funny actually, right now I have to fix anything with a plug or battery. I also have to do all the schools av, the theatre sound and lighting, the complex soundboards in the music dept, the tv info systems, CCTV evidence etc etc, the list goes on forever without even listing all the IT bits which according to Becta we're greatly understaffed for anyway....
I'm paid peanuts for what I do and most of it isnt in my job description, I do it because I actually care. I'm looking to leave before BSF hits, I dont want to be a position where a person in a room next door has to phone India and wait 6 hours for me to be allowed to unjam their printer before levying a fee on the school.
Having first started in ICT in 1983 and with the last 8 years spent in ICT support in the education sector I would like to share my experience of the nature of this unique area of expertise and my take on the best course for the future of ICT in schools.
Let’s not pull any punches here; ICT in education is a mess. Years of up and down funding and ever more confusing government initiatives have left most schools reeling. All too frequently, school networks have evolved into grotesque caricatures of their corporate cousins. Time and time again, funding has come in large lumps to be spent in a particular area – now you might think this is a good thing until you realise that there is never any future planning with this. So give a school 200 computers and leased line internet connectivity but don’t, whatever you do, make any provision for the future renewal and replacement of these. Even worse, make sure there is absolutely no thought given to funding for staff to look after it or for maintenance of your ever growing system. Once you have your fledgling network then you are forced to get unqualified and inexperienced staff to oversee it, often having to remove them from their primary teaching duties. This situation continues to spiral out of control, with the blind LEAs leading the blind (but usually well meaning) stand-in ICT staff until the school realises this just doesn’t work and hires an ICT professional in.
Now the fun begins... in my experience, most ICT staff in schools didn’t particularly aim to work in education. They applied for a job which was offered and accepted. The wages may be less than working in the real world, but education has its advantages. So there you are, in charge of a network in some state of confusion, often with very little budget and with end users who generally fit into the category of ‘very demanding’. So what do you do? Quit after a month and run for the nearest (better paid) industry job? No, you stay. You stay because very quickly you realise that the pupils of the school need decent ICT resources. You stay because you soon start to believe in the impact ICT can have in the classroom, and you stay because here you can be fully challenged. The buck stops with you – you are needed and you swiftly develop the skills to juggle dozens of tasks and learn how to be good at everything vaguely ICT.
School ICT has evolved into something really quite unique and valuable. You now have a whole new breed of ICT support personnel who passionately believe in what they are doing. They don’t do it for the money.
Just look at the excellent edugeek.net for evidence of this. In many instances, school networks are beginning to look as good as or even better than their commercial counterparts thanks to the tireless and often unpaid personal efforts of the ICT professionals involved.
Let’s face it – who would you rather have looking after the network in your child’s school... the large corporate businesses who exist purely to make a financial profit... or the people actually working the long, often stressful hours sometimes on ridiculously low wages usually because they care about what they’re doing?
I must add that I don’t have any personal axe to grind here. I work in an independent school and hence am not under any threat from BSF. Nor do I think that BSF is actually any threat to ICT support in schools in the longer term. In the vast majority of cases it just won’t work and so will be quickly dumped (at great cost to the taxpayer) in favour of a return to in-house support. Nevertheless, I feel that I need to stand up and be counted alongside my colleagues in the maintained sector who deserve to be treated with more respect and not have their livelihoods and previous efforts trodden into the dirt for no good reason.
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Well said all so far. Theres nothing much I could add that hasn't already been said apart from the on ething that bugs me about some of the contract winners.
There seems to be a massive disconnect between the realities of an educational IT enviroment and what is being offered. Some companies are trying ot float the idea of totally wireless networks within schools and a laptop issued to every child which is a huge administrative nightmare in itself, not to mention that the school would be lumbered with a bill for about £60,000 every 18 months to replace worn out laptop batteries in a school of 1000 pupils. And that's for a cheap battery!
The assumption that laptops and wireless can provide the neccercery bandwidth and speeds for uploading huge course work files and viewing high quality streaming media hosted within the school is naive to say the least. At worst the school will be lumbered with a network which simply does not work and having to rely on a company who will be overrun with problems of their own making and then possibly billing the school for it if the contact allows them too!
And as has been mentioned by a previous poster. ICT Innovation in UK schools runs the risk of being severly crippled if not removed completely in some cases.
I remain hopeful though. Some will be good, some will be exceptional, and some will be total and utter abject failures. We simply don't know which will be which yet, and in the worst cases it will be far to late once we have found out anyway. The school will be lumbered with it for 5 years.
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