Along Microsoft's schools frontline, Gerald Haigh finds SharePoint as an exit from ICT managed services
Elephant, ParisSharepoint an elephant in the room? It depends on your vantage point (image from Wikimedia)I can fearlessly confess that even though I’ve been writing about Microsoft SharePoint for several years, I’m still not very good at explaining what it is – even to myself.

I’ll tell you something else. I bet I’m not the only one. I think it was Tony Sheppard (@grumbledook) who first pointed out to me that users across all sectors of business and service can have such different experiences of SharePoint that they simply won’t recognise each other’s descriptions of it. In one way, it’s the old story of The Blind Men and the Elephant, put so eloquently by John Godfrey Saxe many years before SharePoint.

More accurately, though, the explanation lies in the fact that SharePoint can be expertly tailored to meet a huge range of needs and then settle into the background, allowing the users to get on with their work. In the words of another celebrated techie (possibly Dave Coleman of SharePointEduTech, though I won’t swear to it), "Whatever the question, the answer’s 'SharePoint'!"

SharePoint a gateway to education services – and for Wales' Hwb national network

My own experience, then, has been as an observer of one kind of SharePoint application particularly popular in education – that which uses it to produce a ‘portal’, or VLE, or both of them combined, for a school, college or university. In fact it provides the basis for LP+, the learning platform being provided for the new national education network for Welsh educators and learners, Hwb+, by Learning Possibilities. Done well, it provides users with a one-stop, single sign-on gateway to all of the services and applications they need.

It’s extremely good at doing that, more than capable of providing something bespoke, highly interactive and, because it may well be included in your licensing agreement, very cost effective. I’ve seen several of these installations lately, but one in particular comes to mind because of the context in which it was done.

Forest Hill School in Lewisham was one of the first of 13 Lewisham schools that made it into the national Building Schools for the Future programme (BSF) ahead of the 2010 cancellation. In fact, by the end of 2012 the school had been in its new building for five years, and so was coming to the end of the managed ICT service contract that came with BSF. Many BSF schools must be reaching the same point and, like the leadership at Forest Hill, deciding whether to renew the service contract or wave goodbye and strike out on their own.

It isn’t, to say the least, a decision to be lightly taken. For five years, after all, at least in theory, the staff of the school haven’t had to worry about the ICT. It’s just been there, on tap. If they don’t renew then. suddenly, they’re responsible for every aspect of it. Best forget the whole idea and just sign the new contract eh? Or look around for another?

Or, on second thoughts, maybe you’ve spent the contract period watching and learning, champing at the bit, so that now, as the five years peter out, you’re rarin’ to go with your own ideas? That, precisely describes the modus operandi of Jonathan Munt, deputy head of Forest Hill School in Lewisham.

Five years ago, Forest Hill’s new BSF managed service contract took the school from zero to hero in ICT terms – new MIS, interactive whiteboards, the whole lot. Jonathan Munt, though, didn’t just sit around enjoying it. "We had good experiences and I learned a lot about what could be achieved and how to achieve it," he says.

That turned out to be a wise move because, as the contract went on, and changed hands, he became less satisfied with the level of service. "The idea is to take away the headaches of the day-to-day running, so we could focus on running the school," he adds. "But in the end we found the contract restricting. As the company grew, and more schools were involved, the service became less personal." So the ‘go it alone’ decision was made.

This deputy head had a very clear vision of the main thing he wanted from the system, which was a school portal – a click-through front page linking to everything that matters, with anytime, anywhere access including home-school contact. He’d seen it in operation in other schools, and now he wanted one for Forest Hill. Before that though, he had to be sure that, as the managed service came to an end, he’d have a ‘home team’ in school capable of taking over the IT.

'A massive challenge'

"That was a massive challenge," he explains. "I was lucky, though. I put out an advert and we had the right applicants. Two were from people who’d worked for the managed service company and knew the infrastructure already. Not everybody will be in that position."

Jonathan Munt also made sure there was a substantial overlap between the arrival of the in-house team and the ending of the contract. "For four months I was paying for both the managed service and our own engineers. It was expensive, but it was a money saver in the long run."

The BSF contract finished at the end of 2012, and he wanted what he was calling ‘ FHS Connect’ up and running after the Christmas holidays. It was a big ask, and he knew enough to understand that his own IT team, good as they were, weren’t going to be able to deliver his vision. They knew about SharePoint, but not to the level of understanding that was going to be needed, and so he took on SharePoint specialists SharePointEduTech to develop the portal.

They worked fast. Consultancy began in October 2012 and FHS Connect was up and running in all essentials when the school reopened in January.

Could any school coming to the end of a managed service contract go down this route of taking ICT in-house and tailoring it to their needs? This example suggests there’s no reason why it shouldn’t at least be an option to consider alongside the others. There are some major considerations though. For example it’s obviously important to have someone on the senior team who, as in this story, can build knowledge and understanding during the contract period. Jonathan Munt's accumulated expertise, added to his existing experience as a leader of teaching and learning, meant he could envisage a creative future for ICT in the school, and also see what was necessary to make it happen.

He points out just how important it is to keep teaching and learning at the forefront of all the decision making: "The biggest thing for schools, especially smaller ones, is that they often lack that expertise, so you get technology driving the IT when it should be teaching and learning. It’s important to have people on the staff who know about IT."

Three decisions stand out:

  • Deciding to take ICT in-house at the end of the contract;
  • Preparing well in advance for the change – both by using the contract as a learning period, and by recruiting in-house staff early, accepting the cost as an investment;
  • Supporting in-house staff by engaging specialist SharePoint developers with a track record in providing tailored solutions.

More information

You can find a full case study of the Forest Hill installation on the SharePointEduTech website, repeated on the Microsoft Schools Blog. 

Gerald HaighGerald Haigh is a former teacher and headteacher and a long-established freelance writer of articles and books on education. Currently, a major part of his work is to write case studies, ebooks and blogs for Microsoft UK.

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