Thursday, 9 June 2011

Free schools, ICT and the risk of not learning from past mistakes (Part 2)

My last blog looked at the some of the problems with how ICT is now being funded in Free (and other new) schools, concluding that on top of the reduced budget for technology, PfS’ well-intentioned tinkering with the way the money should be spent is causing some serious issues of quality and risk.

Since then, Michael Gove has announced that PfS is to be closed and its functions (and no doubt the majority of its staff) brought in-house. This political side-step will allow the Government to purge off the final lingering whiff of BSF whilst strengthening its capacity to manage capital schools programmes centrally, as recommended in the James review.

This makes a great deal of sense and is one of the review’s findings which I support; a central ‘client’ with expert advice and strong experience will achieve more with the limited funds available than would be possible if the money was passed out regionally or locally.

The most important reason for this is experience; the Design process, from the build contractor’s perspective, is partially a cost suppression exercise which they only accomplish due to the naivety of clients who haven’t done this before. Most of these clients (currently LAs and Academy sponsors) come out of the process with a firm understanding of what they should have done, but limited opportunities to put these lessons into practice, especially with the same set of staff.

If the DfE’s experts are running repeated procurements of new build schools, one would hope that the tax payer would start to gain the upper hand over the build companies’ shareholders, achieving better school buildings for the same money. Of course, this theoretical benefit evaporates if the central client isn’t quite as expert as it purports to be, but that’s a whole separate blog.

Moving onto ICT and the Design process, however, I have an interest to declare here – I work for a company that specialises in integrating ICT into school builds and refurbs – but that doesn’t change the essential right-ness of what follows…

The current method of designing ICT into Free school buildings ‘works’ like this;
  • 1. The Free school comes up with its concept of how technology should be used to enhance its aims (I won’t call this a vision, as the school usually hasn’t had the time or support to develop it in breadth or depth).
  • 4. The Free school procures its ICT contractor with the support of PfS. As the sharper-eyed reader will no doubt have spotted, due to the absence of Step 2 & 3, this is little more than a speculative shopping list.
  • 5. The school is built/ refurbished and the ICT installed. Due to the absence of Step 3, this will inevitably be a fraught process with impaired results.
What are the missing steps? Well, they’re actually quite simple and established routines for ensuring that school building design takes account of ICT, the problem is they require the DfE to pay someone to do them (Free schools themselves don’t have the expertise, PfS don’t have the capacity);
  • 2. The school explores in detail how their ICT vision will be actualised in the building. How will technology support learning in Maths? What equipment is needed to deliver the Science curriculum? Moreover, the school considers what it is that will be important to them in an ICT contractor, as well as the multiple commercial issues which need to be tied down (how will you ensure your choice of Project Manager isn’t shipped off to another project? How will the contractor’s delivery be monitored, tested and managed contractually? Et cetera). The output of this work is an appropriately detailed Invitation to Tender document which leaves the market in no doubt what is being asked for and how it will need to be delivered, and with no room to wriggle out of its responsibilities. Without this, bidders’ responses will be vague and varied, and judging Value for Money is impossible.
  • 3. The school goes through its building on a room by room basis working out how many power and data points are needed and in which locations. This should culminate in a Room Equipment Schedule detailing types of equipment, related power and data requirements, and the implied heat outputs. This is a devilishly complex task, as there are so many dependencies and variables, and missteps & omissions will result in either having to live with the mistakes or having to pay the builder’s costs to fix them. The process needs to happen early enough that the information can inform the builder’s plans, so that any required ICT isn’t bolted on as a compromise when it’s too late to design around it (“Oh, that room is full of computers and needs air conditioning? You really should have said something earlier…and the door to the Server Room is too small to fit the rack through? Not our problem”). It’s also a precursor to procurement as it’s essential to know what you need to buy if you’re interested in working out the relative cost merit of suppliers’ offers. Not doing this is akin to walking blindfolded into Waitrose, telling the cashier you’ve got £50 and then being surprised/ annoyed at how little/ how unsuitable the contents of your shopping bag are when you get home.
I have no doubt that the DfE will realise all this for itself after the experience of the first flawed Free school buildings has sunk in, but that seems a high price to pay, especially as these lessons are already well understood and the UK currently has the intellectual capital and industry capacity to do something about it.

Dom Norrish. Follow me on twitter.

1 comment:

Owen Anthony said...

One area that has changed and that could have a significant impact on the schools is telephony. This has been moved from the ICT to the builder's area of responsibility. With the greatest respect to building contractors, this is not their area of expertise and a poorly realised telephony system can cause nightmares in terms of business interruption. I question the motives for moving it - can you buy phones more cheaply under a build contract? Perhaps. Can cheap phones or a poorly designed telephony system turn users off a new building in a week? Absolutely.

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