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School IT buying needs to be overhauled, says government report

Study finds that provisioning varies widely across the country

Despite schools spending almost half a billion pounds on ICT last year, the provision of technology varies widely, according to a government-commissioned report that called for a significant change in procurement.

Sebastian James, the group operations director at Dixons Retail, was commissioned by the Department for Education to lead a review into the school capital expenditure system last year, and his report has just been published.

The report says a typical secondary school spends around £200,000 a year on ICT, of which at least half is categorised as capital expenditure.

James said the majority of schools have made their own decisions on ICT capital investment and he said this has limited the ability to achieve value for money or provide a consistent quality of ICT for pupils and staff.

Many schools had "not progressed" beyond an "ad hoc approach to funding" and running IT, according to the Review of Education Capital report.

The report also took into account the axed Building Schools for the Future programme, and James and his review team found the lifecycle for ICT was very different to building infrastructure, with the two often failing to match up on requirements.

Further problems can arise when schools choose not to spend money on maintaining buildings in favour of investing in ICT, says the report.

The report also recommends the Department for Education should establish a "menu" of core and additional regional broadband services for schools. This would ensure schools select and pay only for the services they actually need, it says.

There should also be a strategy to glean best value from existing public sector broadband networks, including establishing a minimum bandwidth standard of 10Mbps for primary schools, and 100Mbps for secondary schools.

However, James warned education secretary Michael Gove, "Putting my recommendations into practice will be a major challenge. I know that I am asking for a significant change in culture and practice."

Gove said, "I welcome this independent report and we will respond soon. The system we inherited had profound problems. We must have a system for school building which is much simpler, less bureaucratic, and which targets priority projects."

The report also says, "The support model for ICT procurement needs to be reviewed to reduce external consultancy costs and provide direct central advice supplemented by tools and guidance for individual institutions and education providers."

As part of the strategy a web-based price comparison catalogue should be developed to help schools get the best price for ICT.

In addition, says the report, "The Department for Education should procure a central framework for school Management Information Systems (MIS), to address concerns about the legality of the current procurement of such systems by individual schools, and to address poor value for money caused by variable pricing structures for different types of institutions."

John Botham, education director at networking supplier D-link, urged schools to watch for "long term value" opportunities. "With the likelihood of reduced LEA support, in the face of budget cuts, ease of use and support for any new equipment will be vital: one computer may be cheaper at purchase but if it is unreliable, complex and comes with little or no warranty, in the long term it will be a huge drain on resources."

"One way" of targeting longer term value, he said, is "to have a three to five year plan on a leasing deal, which allows for the regular refreshment of kit and includes built in service deals for a fixed-termly amount".

Now read: The psychology of ICT procurement in schools


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