By Bob Harrison
Dara O'Briain and Becta's Nina Woodcock present the awardDara O'Briain and Becta's Nina Woodcock present the awardWho says you can't innovate in a managed service? “Not us!” would be the answer from Sheffield schools in the early waves of BSF and their ICT supplier, Civica, who last week won the “Most Effective ICT Partnership” award at the 2nd annual Partnerships for Schools Excellence in BSF Awards evening held at the Grosvenor House Hotel, London. Leeds and RM, also on the shortlist, were "highly commended".

Civica’s education solutions include secure information and resource sharing in the managed learning environment it created with its BSF schools. With Microsoft, the company has developed a managed learning environment (MLE) with electronic registration, cashless catering and student portals. Civica has a 20-year pedigree in education and learning but it was its ability to work closely with Sheffield local authority, satisfy the schools and the wider community and be creative in the contract management that won praise from the PfS judges and respect and credibility within the BSF community.

The tangible positivity, energy and enthusiasm evident in the room at the awards ceremony – including an impressively balanced representation of educators and the building and ICT communities – is a powerful reminder of the momentum Partnerships for Schools has now developed in this vital transformation project that has so far resisted knee-jerk responses to the recession.

'The excitement, innovation and real sense of the difference BSF is making...'

Tim Byles, chief executive of Partnerships for Schools and chair of the Excellence in BSF Awards judging panel, said: “This year’s entries captured the excitement, innovation and real sense of the difference BSF is making to young people, to teachers and to communities across the country."

There have been questions about the perceived tension that exists between schools' desire and need to innovate and the constraints of managed services, but according to Sheffield schools and Civica it is a challenge that can be overcome. “We have worked very hard to engage and listen to the teachers and pupils within the schools and then make sure the managed service delivered what they wanted," said James Grant, bid director for Civica. “This is not a case of 'one size fits all' and the service needs to support innovation and transformation in learning.”

Becta, the government agency responsible for ICT in education, and sponsor of the ICT award, also believes the challenge can be met. “We know that technology has the potential to transform learning," said Nina Woodcock, head of capital programmes for BECTA. We are committed to inspiring education providers to realise that potential and equip learners for Britain’s future success.”

The most recent research from Becta on ICT in schools demonstrates that while progress has been made with infrastructure, and teachers are “enthusiastic and positive” about the use of technology to enhance learning, only about 50 per cent of teachers use it effectively in a range of tasks. Similarly, while an increasing number of schools are becoming “e-enabled” there is still a lot of work to be done to support schools on their transformation journeys and reap the potential benefits in effectiveness and efficiency.

The Becta research also showed that teachers are in danger of being left out of the loop when it comes to learning platforms. However the Partnerships for Schools judges were told that the Sheffield schools' MLE was both popular with and heavily used by teachers and students.

This suggests that as well as providing technology fit for purpose, the relationship between schools and their service providers carries crucial importance. If partnerships like the one between Sheffield and Civica (and others on the award shortlist, like Leeds and Lewisham) can be replicated elsewhere in BSF then there should be no reason why the words “innovation” and “transformation” cannot be synonymous with a managed service. It's time to insist on nothing less.

Caption for picture (above): left to right, awards host Dara O'Briain, Nina Woodcock (Becta), Sarah Mann (duration change manager), James Grant, (bid director), Mark Rosine (commercial director), PfS chief executive Tim Byles.

More information

Full Excellence in BSF Awards results on the Partnerships for Schools website
BECTA Schools survey and questions for BSF on National College's Future website
Naace will hold a BSF/managed services Think Tank on December 4

Bob HarrisonBob Harrison is an education consultant who works with the National College for  Leadership of Schools and Children's Services, the British Educational Communications and Technology Agency and Toshiba UK. You can read his blog on the Futurelab Flux website. He runs Support for Education and Training.

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