Bail out school ICT ... Euro-style

A recent article by Simon Phipps in his blog finished with the phrase ‘… forced to evolve’. It has stuck in my head. In Darwinian evolution change occurs as a result of the impact of external conditions acting upon a population....


A recent article by Simon Phipps in his blog finished with the phrase ‘… forced to evolve’. It has stuck in my head. In Darwinian evolution change occurs as a result of the impact of external conditions acting upon a population.

It is predicated on there being a diversity of characteristics with that population some of which will be suited to the external change and thus will thrive ... ’naturally selected’ as the phrase goes.

Obviously, the corollary is that those less suited will struggle or die. The trouble is, an individual cannot change its genes so you cannot logically ‘force evolution’ upon unsuited individuals or cloned populations. An organisation, like a school, is really a cloned population. Its very structure reduces the ‘gene pool’ within the organisation. This means that external changes are relatively more of a threat to survival... conservatism rules and change has to be forced.

Even so I would like to propose a major change in how schools and colleges procure their ICT that may ‘force them to evolve’. They can be ‘forced to evolve’ as Simon says because all of the above is a metaphor and it is possible (just) for management structures to change their DNA.

I propose then that schools should have enough capital to keep their cable, switches, wireless and backups going but no more. The rest they will have to rent.

Buying ICT in schools and colleges

Schools and Colleges can’t procure ICT for toffee. Sure they can spend money and when it was plentiful they did just that. They had separate ring-fenced ICT budgets and mad old BECTA to advise them on what to spend.

The former was eye-wateringly generous and created a generation of ‘boxed-set’ software reseller millionaires, the later ensured that no matter how dopey the procurement ‘due diligence’ had been done so no-one got fired.

Once the kit was bought did anyone plan for the capital required to replace them? … not on your nelly, so when the money-tree was chopped down ICT found itself competing with leaky roofs for capital spending which in any case had been cut by up to 80%.

So here we are ten years on from the mad days with a shed load of ageing stock, the vast majority of which is incapable of running even MS Vista (remember that OS?) and countless instances of expensive Learning Platforms that barely anyone uses.

Schools are not buying anymore but they sure are spending. School ICT was a bit like buying an Inkjet Printer. The capital cost is very attractively priced but boy are you going to pay later (licences, support, maintenance, electricity, consumables).

‘Gotcha 1’

‘I can’t to afford to replace my system but I need it so I must continue to pay to keep it going’. That’s why the poorer members of society drive the older cars (which are most polluting and expensive to run) and have ‘pay as you’ go electricity meters and phones (which are the most expensive way to buy ). Being broke costs money.

‘Gotcha 2’

Nearly all schools have an integrated network in which the students and administrators share common services. The administrators though are very tightly locked into various non-migratory database-driven packages, typically some kind of platform and database specific MIS (management information software).

It’s no wonder schools feel beaten and not a little foolish. They are in so many ways the same as that poor guy driving the ten year old 2-litre Ford Mondeo with a pocket full of £1 coins to watch Cable TV.

What’s the solution? Schools patently can’t save themselves. They need a Greece or Ireland style bail out even though we can ill afford it as a nation. However there must be conditions so that they don’t do it all over again.

Rent don’t Buy

I think the single simplest external change is to massively restrict schools’ ability to buy computers, software and equipment. Anyone who has seen the piles of redundant broken laptops on charger trolleys, the draws full of unused data-logging equipment and the stacks of unused software will know why I am saying this.

If they could not buy they would have to rent.

  1. This is a good thing as ICT then becomes a proper annualised cost so you cannot make a purchase with a hidden cost commitment. My friend once bought a second hand Rolls Royce for a surprising small amount of money.
  2. You can rent quite a lot of stuff.
  • You can rent physical items such tablets, notebooks, laptops, desktops
  • You can rent servers and storage space from the Cloud (where’s G-Cloud when you need it?)
  • You can rent online software suites (or get some free)
  • You already rent Internet services and proprietary software licences

Moving to a 90% rental model by slashing capital budgets and loaning money for changes that you approve of would ‘force schools to evolve’. The Chrome books are out and just about everyone whether or not they like Google or their prices see how it will be in the near future.

You can rent proprietary software but you could chose to go for the free stuff ... it’s much easier to chose when you rent rather than buy.

Buying creates a ‘purchase justification loyalty’ while renting does not.

I think the Cabinet Office had already worked this out for itself and writ it large by cutting capital budgets, developing a National App store and building G-Cloud..but why has it gone so quiet over there? 

Did the dinosaurs make a comeback? ‘Dead on they did young buck, MS Excel 2000 on 500 watt XP monsters ... it were good enough for me da’ … so it’ll be doing for you’.

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