The best way to invest in ICT for your school

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As schools see their budgets shrink, keeping ICT up to date can become difficult. But, as Dan Jellinek reports in the Guardian’s ICT Leadership website, a number of headteachers are taking a creative approach to keeping their IT systems – and finances – in good shape.

Earlier this month the education secretary, Michael Gove, announced plans to overhaul how computing science is taught in schools. Gove, who described the current systems as “off-putting and dull”, wants schools to be free to design their own ICT lessons, with input from leading industry employers and academics, in order to create a generation of young people able to work at the forefront of technological change.

But with schools already facing budget cuts, where will the money come from to pay for the new information and communications technology (ICT) needed to implement Gove’s plans, which will come into effect this September?

For schools looking for extra funding sources for ICT, these are hard times. A decade or so ago, there were special grants available, but John Morgan, head teacher at Conyers School in Yarm, Stockton-on-Tees and former president of the Association of School and College Leaders, says those days are over. “In the years of plenty, there used to be special targeted, ring-fenced grants to put ICT into schools,” he says. “None of that exists now.”

While the government has allowed money from the devolved formula capital grant, which covers costs like buildings, to be used for ICT hardware, that too has been cut. “That can accrue over a few years,” says Morgan, “although it has also been massively slashed, from hundreds of thousands to tens of thousands.”

But even with the cuts, schools recognise the importance of maintaining ICT spending, and few will have started to spend less on it. The answer is to be more creative with what you have, not least because quality ICT is a growing influence on parents’ choice of school, says Duncan Payne-Shelley, finance director of IT provider Novatech.

“If you see a nice new ICT suite [the school] seems forward-looking, but if you go round and see tired IT, you tend to think the school is tired,” he says. “These days even in state schools, head teachers increasingly feel as if they are running a business, so to attract more pupils it’s important to have good IT.”

For Caroline Anderson, director of administration and resources at Christ the King Catholic School in Nottingham, the answer has been to hire an innovative IT director, give him free rein, and use the savings to reinvest in ICT.

“Instead of me trying to make IT decisions and telling him what I wanted, [I gave] the person with the knowledge and the tools the autonomy to do the job,” says Anderson.

This approach has paid off many times over as the IT director has introduced a range of money-saving initiatives, from server virtualisation, which means a single server can do the job of four or five servers; to thin client technology, which reduces the amount of data held on individual hard drives and the subsequent cost of extra memory; and an internet telephony (VOIP) system, which uses the internet to provide telephone services. The savings have allowed the governors to approve a programme of reinvestment into the IT budget with a view to anticipating future trends and staying ahead of developments, Anderson says.

“It’s a creative thinking approach– not just saying what’s available now so what shall we buy, but what will be available in three years’ time, and how can we adapt new technologies? We’re keen to talk to new companies to get [pre-released] versions of software, for example – we trial them and get them at a reduced rate.”

For some schools, the solution to creative financing has meant exploring leasing options – renting equipment for a fixed period (typically three or four years) with payments coming out of operational expenditure.

“If I’m a headmaster or bursar and my capital budget has been frozen, the ability to replace my kit within the operating budget, which is under my control, is appealing,” Payne-Shelley says.

Almost all the costs of owning ICT can be included in a lease, from the monitors and mice to the school’s telephones – as well as software, warranties (though not accident insurance) and installation fees. At the end of the lease period schools can usually return their equipment, extend the lease to prolong its usage, or replace it with new equipment on similar terms, or some combination of these.

David Tull, leasing manager at specialist IT lessor CHG-MERIDIAN, says that while new equipment can seem expensive, hanging on to old kit has its price as well. “Budgets are under pressure, but the costs of ICT ownership can actually increase as an ICT estate gets older – if you’ve got 30 children in a classroom and the computers aren’t working, it’s a lot of downtime.”

Companies such as CHG-MERIDIAN offer compliant operating leases, with payment profiles to match incoming grants and budget structures. And as the equipment is provided up front, a three-year lease can effectively triple a school’s buying power, Tull says.

Getting creative, then, can bring long-term benefits for less cost overall – a tonic for our times.

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