RBCs used aggregation for ICT savings. Do schools’ financial freedoms undercut them, asks Neil Watkins
Since the arrival of the Coalition Government in 2010 schools have been given more control over budgets, enabling them to buy what they want, from whomever they want. And this trend has been applauded by most schools.
But with the new drive to make every school in England an academy, does financial freedom mean that schools are in danger of missing out on some of the benefits offered by historical Government funded agencies like the Regional Broadband Consortia (RBCs)?
The power of aggregation to save money for schools – more than £100m
Prior to the break-up of local authority (LA) control over schools in England, the 150 LAs responsible for procured services had considerable buying power. Consequently they often secured very good deals.
Focusing specifically on broadband internet access, something relatively new at the time, the Government established ten RBCs to offer schools the best broadband capability and capacity in the most cost-effective way.
These not-for-profit organisations aggregated the demand from LAs and schools, and managed to obtain significant discounts through economies of scale. It reportedly resulted in more than £100 million savings of public money. For example, in 2000 one RBC achieved the installation of a regional network, which was initially bid at £15.7m, for the significantly lower price of £6.9m.
Even large companies like Virgin and BT admit that the buying power of RBCs, when you put national frameworks in place, reduces the cost of sale, which is then reflected in the price.
However, bulk purchasing doesn’t necessarily reduce schools’ freedom to choose. Despite the unquestionable savings, many schools have still exercised their right to procure their internet access from whoever they chose. This was often spurred on by a growing feeling that their LA was not spending their money effectively or appropriately for their specific needs.
It came as no surprise, therefore, that the new financial freedom delivered to schools, along with the reduction of LA control by the Coalition Government were initially welcomed by most schools.
Over time it has become increasingly apparent to schools that their own grass isn’t always greener. Nine of the most effective RBCs still thrive in their delivery of ICT services because they offer true savings. Recently, there have been cases where RBCs have competed for schools that were going out to market for their broadband requirements, and were able to undercut even the most reduced prices by a further 50 per cent.
But it’s no longer just about broadband procurement. Like LAs, RBCs have had to generate income to survive like all other businesses. However, the RBCs work on a not-for-profit basis and can therefore focus on supporting schools’ specific needs rather than having to keep shareholders happy. While all RBCs were originally established to provide cost-effective connectivity, they have diversified to specialise in specific areas of technology provision.
So have they simply joined the long list of education resource suppliers to clutter an already highly competitive market, or do they offer a value-added service?
Regional has become national
Like the other RBCs, one of the biggest of the original 10, the London Grid for Learning (LGfL), still procures broadband connectivity for schools at highly competitive prices, but it has also created its own distinct place in the education sector based on providing resources for learning. Its ‘Content Manager’ ensures the strategic development of relevant and necessary content for schools.
“Polar Exploration in the Heroic Age of Scientific Discovery”, which provides a unique insight into polar exploration, is one example of the resources offered. To create it, the LGfL worked with the Scott Polar Research Institute at Cambridge University. And there are many other resources, like The Guardian and Observer News Archive, maths revision tools by Mathspace and popular core curriculum learning content from companies such as BusyThings and iBoardTouch.
Some resources are licensed from commercial suppliers by the LGfL or commissioned especially for London schools under a special discounted contract, and are therefore only available to London schools. Other resources, created in house by LGfL are freely available to all schools across the country, who are signed up to the national education network (NEN). The value comes in the fact that the content has been developed to fill recognised ‘gaps’ in the education market.
The South West Grid for Learning (SWGfL), the organisation previously responsible for broadband supply in the South West of England, is an example of another RBC of old that has evolved to become a specialist, in their case, in the increasingly important area of eSafety.
Its two year Online Safety Briefing programme has seen 138 sessions take place across the UK, from the Scottish Highlands to Penzance and Crymych in Wales to Derry in Northern Ireland. It was one of the first major establishments to bring eSafety to professionals working with children and young people.
The programme provides support to more than 4,000 people, typically teachers, police officers, social workers, early years’ practitioners, LAs and child protection professionals, and has the support of the Government Equalities Office as well as BT, Sky, Virgin and TalkTalk.
Today, SWGfL’s eSafety guidance for schools is referenced and used in school inspections across the country. Following research from its ‘360 degree safe self review’ tool, SWGfL now offers bespoke online safety training to schools across the country. And it seems very relevant that this important aspect of 21st-century education is provided by a not-for-profit organisation with many years’ experience of supporting schools and colleges.
Another interesting part of the RBC evolution is that they are no longer restricted regionally. SWGfL offers its eSafety expertise to schools right across the UK and as previously mentioned, many of the LGfL’s resources are available to all schools on the NEN.
Turning to the East of England Broadband Network (E2BN), like other RBCs, E2BN made its way by successfully procuring highly discounted rates on learning content and developing free resources for its schools. However, more recently, through feedback from its loyal customers, E2BN recognised the need for schools to have IT suppliers that give them the freedom to choose what technology and resources they want for their specific purposes.
The Government’s move to give schools freedom is based on the fact that their needs are different; however the majority of managed service providers still dictate what a school can buy. It was this point that prompted E2BN to develop a new initiative called Think IT, a national framework that not only attracts huge discounts on broadband and cloud services, but also gives schools complete choice for the resources they want to add to the network service.
Think IT’s ethos is that schools’ ICT resources should not be about price or the set products that a managed service provider supplies. They should be about what is right for the school.
It is important to start by focusing on the outcomes that the school wants for its pupils, staff, parents and governors, and then provide advice and guidance on what ICT will achieve these objectives. Some schools may feel perfectly competent to manage their own IT internally; others may want a level of support from the Think IT service.
Think IT is basically a shop front of high-quality products from a wide range of suppliers that have been pre approved under a Government framework agreement. The historical power of E2BN has enabled this cost- and time-effective procurement model to be offered to schools across the country, while also giving them the freedom to chose exactly what they want and at what level.
Supporting partner schools who want to go that extra mile
Schools that want to go that extra mile are certainly collaborating with the RBCs to receive the industry insight and support to make this possible.
In London, Andrew King, headteacher at Chase Bridge Primary School in Richmond had been working hard with his staff to meet the statutory requirements of the new National Curriculum.
Recognising the importance of having a good ICT infrastructure in place to ensure teachers and children could access curriculum-aligned resources both at school and home, King approached LGfL.
At each stage of developing their ICT curriculum framework the staff looked to LGfL to incorporate relevant and engaging resources. Using LGfL’s Curriculum Central resource the teachers have been able to search for content by key stage, year, subject and even learning objective. “The sheer range, quality and variety of resources available from LGfL is staggering” explains King. “Its USO [unified sign on] login means that teachers and students can log in to the learning content both at school and at home.
"We certainly would have done a good job in meeting the statutory requirements of the new national curriculum by ourselves but by working with LGfL we have not only saved a lot of teacher time but we have enhanced the curriculum to really excite the children about their learning.”
Getting the core infrastructure right in every school is of course vital. Broadclyst Community Primary School in Devon had invested in theirs to enable them to utilise a whole host of technologies which would impact positively right across the school.
Initially Broadclyst turned to SWGfL simply to provide the broadband connectivity required. However SWGfL defined the way the old RBCs have evolved. Using its experience and expertise SWGfL implemented highly cost-effective broadband connectivity including a high-performance reliable symmetric connection to the internet, essential security (featuring centralised, enterprise-class firewalls and state-of-the-art intrusion prevention technologies) and essential safety (including filtering, monitoring and reporting tools).
Paul Begbie (pictured below, right), director of studies at South Lee School in Bury St Edmunds, also recognises the difference that the traditional RBCs can deliver. The school had reached a stage whereby some of their existing ICT was unfit for purpose, it was wasting valuable teaching time and not capitalising on the benefits that the latest educational software could offer.
Only with the help of the Think IT framework were they able to implement a cloud-based IT infrastructure. Begbie explains: “Virtual desktops now mean that we no longer have the headache of upgrading all our PCs when software versions change or we buy new devices, as everything is managed in the cloud. We will also benefit from the advanced security and have a range of software systems, including e-safety, safeguarding, pupil tracking and a virtual learning environment all running in the cloud and available to staff anywhere, any time and on any device.
“Think IT managed to condense this four month project into just six weeks,” adds Stephen Honeywood, governor at South Lee. “The efficiency and effectiveness of what has been achieved in such a short space of time is quite remarkable.”
Procurement autonomy 'hasn't eliminated cost-saving opportunities'
Taking these three organisations as examples, it would appear that the Government’s move towards giving schools procurement autonomy and removing agencies that were originally set up to effect economies of scale to save schools’ money, hasn’t eliminated these cost saving opportunities. The original publicly-funded RBCs have evolved into organisations that have become even more beneficial to schools. So while schools now have the freedom they desire but with the choice, cost benefits and the all-important flexibility they deserve, RBCs certainly seem to have carved a niche of highly valuable support for schools nationally.
So what can we expect in the future? The continued success of the RBCs suggests that their business objectives are in line with schools’ evolving needs. And flexibility and freedom appear to be the key themes.
Schools no longer have to accept the fixed, structured packaged services offered by managed service providers and content suppliers; they only want to invest in exactly what they need, and companies offering this level of ‘pick and mix’ will thrive. However, we mustn’t forget the additional power of the RBC’s who are able to offer their services under Government framework agreements, adding a cost benefit to the offering.
Neil Watkins is head of WCL Ltd which provides E2BN's Think IT service. Think IT is a new way for schools, colleges and universities to buy the latest educational technologies and services as one complete solution – all through an approved EU tendered procurement framework.