Monday, 23 May 2011

Free schools, ICT and the risk of not learning from past mistakes (Part 1)

Having been exposed to the evolving Free Schools process over the past few months, I’d like to raise a few area for discussion, specifically about how ICT will be planned and integrated, as I’m not convinced this has been properly thought through. In this first part, I’ll concentrate on the funding side of things.

The funding model is pretty different from that seen in previous capital projects (Academies, et cetera) and reflects the nation’s more straightened circumstances as well as an attempt to reorganise responsibilities;
  • ICT equipment funding spent with the ICT contractor (to cover all end-user kit, essentially) is capped at £800 per pupil, down from £1450. This is an approximate 45% reduction. See here for this potential impact of this.
  • The £225 per pupil for ICT infrastructure spent with the builder remains intact but is now expected to stretch further, covering active networking (wired and wireless) and some installation elements.
The positives
The £225 being stretched further is a good thing, as it was always too much money in my opinion for what the builder was being asked to do (the cabling, basically). Value for money was rarely achieved and even more rarely demonstrated – this funding tended to get swallowed up into the project more generally.

Some would also say that £1450 per pupil for equipment was too much – some schools struggled to spend it meaningfully, and struggled even more to maintain this level of investment in future years. I can’t argue with the logic of the second half of that; it is indeed easier and more realistic for schools to pay for the upkeep of a smaller ICT estate than a larger one.

Finally, I think it’s accurate to say that the ambition behind changes in responsibility for delivery (expanded on below) is that any new schools built on this model will be ready to go ‘out of the box’; all the ICT infrastructure (previously split between builder and ICT contractor) will be in place and ready for schools to hang whatever they like off it.

The negatives
Firstly, £800 per pupil for ICT equipment is certainly not enough, especially for small schools for whom infrastructural costs don’t scale downwards as they’re relatively fixed. This number, I assume, is predicated on schools outsourcing many of their services (and hence their servers) to external providers in what is popularly imagined as ‘the cloud’. That’s fine, as far as it goes, but carries several assumptions;
  • that the school can afford to dedicate a large chunk (£150-200 per pupil probably) of its revenue to paying for outsourced services;
  • that every school (remember, the £800 is a capped maximum, regardless of circumstances) has sufficient bandwidth to receive reliable remote services;
  • that every school wants to follow this outsourcing model, and many will be unhappy with the levels of control, flexibility and security it offers.
If I reference those assumptions against the three new build projects I’m currently working on, each project falls afoul of at least one of them.

This approach removes choice from schools and burdens them with an ICT mortgage; it smacks of the worst elements of BSF to me.

Secondly, to enforce the stretching of the builder’s budget (the £225), PfS have changed the standard form ICT Responsibilities Matrix to include several items which I believe are best left in the scope of the ICT contractor;
  • Edge and core switching
  • Wireless (to be fair, this isn’t a change per se as it was always a builder responsibility, they just never did it)
  • The install of Data Projectors, Interactive Whiteboards and Signage screens
  • and, bizarrely, Weather Stations (I guess because they go on the roof?)
This raises all sorts of concerns around quality, installation, configuration and testing. The questions that spring to my mind are;
  • How will the specification of these systems be agreed? It will be up to the ICT work stream to specify them, but my experience suggests that an appropriately high, future-proof spec will be aggressively resisted by the build contractor. The resulting compromise? Weakened infrastructure.
  • How will the standards of installation be agreed? The thorniest issue in any implementation is usually the Audio Visual element, specifically meeting the school’s expectations. Again, without wishing to denigrate the building industry unnecessarily, I have doubts over the success of this.
  • Who will configure these systems? Physical installation is one thing, technical configuration is quite another. Even if the builder uses third party experts (they don’t typically retain their own), surely it’s the ICT contractor who needs to configure the network to suit the ICT solution? This is probably the most worrying and highest risk part.
  • How will the builder-provided elements be tested? Currently, the ICT providers we appoint are held to account via detailed User Acceptance Tests linked to payment milestones and delay penalties. This is enshrined in the contract and has taken a number of years to mature. I can’t imagine this approach being accepted by the big building companies. What is far more likely is that ‘sign off’ will be achieved through perfunctory testing which gives schools no assurance of a properly functioning system.
The elephant in the room
In an attempt to achieve clearer demarcation, the process seems to have created a raft of issues and risks, throwing the baby out with the bathwater. The potential, unforgivable tragedy is the massive waste of public funds implied, and not just through poor outcomes; the builder – unable to do the work themselves – will in almost all cases simply subcontract these tasks to… the ICT contractor.

The outcomes will be worse due to reduced specification and issues over quality and testing, and the same people will do the work in the end. The main difference is that it will cost the country more. Is this really the way to build on the lessons of past programmes?

In the next part, I plan to consider the process by which ICT is designed and integrated into Free school buildings

Dom Norrish. Follow me on twitter.

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