Must do better: £45bn schools plan fails to impress

17 Apr 2008 View Comments
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Schools' IT managers are warning of problems ahead for BSF

Building Schools for the Future (BSF) is the government’s £45bn programme to update the infrastructure across England’s secondary school system.

The IT element is one of the most controversial aspects of the programme, and has sparked furious reactions from those responsible for running IT in schools.

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The scheme stands accused of allocating inadequate budgets, leaving schools at the mercy of centralised procurement, and potentially providing unsuitable and badly specified systems.

It is already causing rifts between schools and local authorities, amid claims that those unwilling to sign up ­ or that challenge grant allocations ­ are being penalised.
Although the scheme has already been reduced in scope, IT managers are angry that their concerns are being ignored.

“If a school is being built on a shoestring, it won’t have the innovation and IT you want,” said Paul Bettison, leader of Bracknell Forest Borough Council.

“I’m not sure if I can equip my new secondary school with the interactive whiteboards I have in my primary schools, because I don’t have the money. I’m £8m short and having to build 300 houses on a piece of the playing fields to make up the shortfall.”

Other issues cited concern the recommendations from education IT agency Becta that to achieve greater economies of scale, purchasing should be carried out by large organisations such as local authorities, and not by individual schools.

This threatens the legal position of school governors, and managed IT services contracts are shutting small companies out of the market, said Sean Doherty, a school governor.

“How do we, as governors, fulfil our legal responsibilities if the decisions are being made centrally and the schools don’t know what the costs are? BSF excludes smaller innovative companies, putting IT backwards and potentially creating mini-monopolies within local authority areas,” he said.

Independent education IT consultant Steve Molyneux said anything like attempts to create “classrooms of the future,” could waste huge amounts of money.

“This could turn out to be the biggest white elephant of all time. They’re in jeopardy of seriously damaging education for the next two decades,” he said.

It is widely thought that by standardising IT across different schools, a one-size-fits-all model will be created. “One of my concerns is that large suppliers will deliver systems around what they already have. The future element is being left out,” said Molyneux.

And it's not going to be easy for smaller companies to get in on the act.

To be approved under Becta’s list of approved, EU-compliant suppliers, companies must tender to be accepted onto a framework agreement. Suppliers are rated on factors such as financial stability and length of time trading. This will ultimately favour tier one suppliers, excluding smaller innovative companies, say critics.

Other companies and products, such as Microsoft Gateway, cannot be included until the next round of competition and e-learning platform Moodle, used globally in
universities, is not on the list because it is freeware.

Managed services contracts could create mini-monopolies within local authority areas. It is claimed the only way for smaller firms to get involved would be to sub-contract to the large providers.

While councils can legally select other suppliers, Becta recommends that to purchase the best value and most appropriate products and services,
councils must follow the framework.

In March, education specialist RM issued a profit warning, blaming the high costs of bidding for BSF contracts.

Click here to read more about the BSF programme and what it hopes to achieve.

View from the staff room - what Computing readers said about BSF:

With BSF the local education authority is not a service provider, it is a service dictator. It will waste more money than I’ve ever seen.
School IT manager, London

Thanks to BSF, practically all technical IT staff in schools will be outs ourced to private companies. The remaining teaching staff are severely restricted in their ability to innovate without sound technical backup, which the replacement toner-drones will be unable to provide.
J Wiltshire

IT in BSF is about putting a one-size-fits-all approach into schools, installing a managed service run by companies who are more interested in profit than in the education of our future generations. Innovation in IT will be taken away from IT
professionals and teachers in schools, and placed in the hands of private sector companies, away from those who care, and given to those who want their Christmas bonus. The dynamism, innovation and pace of IT in education will die with BSF.
Marc Blake

I am optimistic about some aspects of BSF and will do what I can to ensure that support staff in schools have their chance to make a difference. But the realists out there know that we need to see the successes and mistakes from the first few waves before it will be fixed, by which point hundreds of professionals will have left schools to work in the private sector and skills will be lost from schools.
Tony Sheppard, events organiser,

I am employed in a BSF school in the Burnley/Pendle area and have had to put up with the stress, heartache, uncertainty and mushroom management of the IT provision and state of play regarding our jobs in the near future. Even the very thought of looking at one of the proposals for one of our almost-built BSF schools makes me shiver. Get out of IT in education before BSF gets in.
Saul Hudson

I am an IT manager in the education sector and have recently been involved with BSF. The price was originally £60 per pupil, but has been increased to more than £150 per pupil, meaning a school of 2,000 students would have to pay £300,000 per year. This is about three times more expensive, for a far inferior service.
Anonymous education IT manager

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