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Neil Watkins: "Until the first iPad went on sale back in May 2010, there were no mobile devices in English schools. Just five years later, the outlook is very different"

Getting to grips with IT procurement

While greater level of autonomy is a positive move for academies, budgets are continuously being squeezed, says Neil Watkins

Posted by Stephanie Broad | November 08, 2015 | Law, finance, HR

The academies programme is accelerating, with increasing numbers of failing and coasting schools receiving government intervention and academy sponsors being brought in to turn them around.

Whilst the greater level of autonomy is a positive move for these schools, budgets are continuously being squeezed, meaning they are already looking for opportunities to create efficiencies and save money. 

A recent report by the Institute for Fiscal Studies warns that spending per pupil in English schools is likely to fall by eight per cent in real terms over the next five years, due to rising costs and increasing pupil numbers. In light of this, the Department for Education (DfE) has reassured schools that it is making significant progress towards fairer funding and will be “protecting the schools’ budget, which will rise as pupil numbers increase”. However, it’s still a school’s responsibility to account for how it is spending public money.

One particularly challenging area for all schools, is the increasing use of IT in teaching and learning. The use of IT, particularly mobile devices like tablets, is increasing exponentially. 

Until the first iPad went on sale back in May 2010, there were no mobile devices in English schools. Just five years later, the outlook is very different, with approaching one million devices being used in the classroom. BESA’s annual ‘Tablets and Connectivity’ survey shows that the adoption of mobile technology in schools is increasing rapidly. 71% of UK primary and 76% of secondary schools (an increase from 56% in 2014 in both school types) are now making use of tablets in the classroom. Currently, there are estimated to be 721,000 tablets for use by pupils in classrooms across UK maintained schools and academies, with predictions that by the end of 2016 this number will have increased to over 946,000.

This rapid rise in the use of technology is heartening; it’s used in everything from maths to PE; but, providing it safely and securely, comes at a cost. At a time of increasing pupil numbers and squeezed budgets, that’s becoming a significant problem for schools.

Another significant challenge for schools is procurement. How do they know what to buy, and how do they ensure they don’t get ripped off? Having talked to hundreds of schools over the last two years, it’s clear that many don’t have procurement expertise in-house; they often delegate the responsibility to a competent teacher to manage in addition to his or her existing duties, which is just not effective. The most challenging part of the procurement process is going out to tender as usually a school will receive a number of quotes back, which they will have to reduce down to five or more providers. Important investment decisions are then made; decisions that can affect the school for the next three, four or five years, based on a 45-minute presentation and interview. To me, this process isn’t practical. There are procurement frameworks out there that do it all for you, drawing on expertise from the best educational providers. Because they are pre-tendered, schools save time and money. The DfE “ICT buying for schools” guide is a good place to start if you’re looking for further advice in this area. 

Education is unique as a sector, in that it has been slower to realise the benefits of technology to increase productivity and cut costs, almost to the point of being perceived as resisting change; even sectors such as healthcare is recognised for adopting technology faster than education, to benefit from these efficiencies. The sooner schools begin to understand the benefits that technology offer in terms of  saving time, headcount, and therefore money, the more efficiencies will be realised. However, successful implementation requires buy-in from the whole school. A school could buy the best IT system in the world, but it’s still a waste of money if its staff don’t, won’t or can’t use it. 

There are a number of measures of a school’s success, not just attainment, but increasingly how a school manages its finances will be one of the key measures of success. Schools therefore need the right tools to help them set and manage budgets effectively. If a school wants to create efficiencies, it must have control over its finances in order to make smarter, more informed buying decisions.

Neil Watkins is managing director of Think IT    

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