Monday, 15 June 2009

BSF ICT- the issue about opting out

Enquiries have been asking me for more detail about schools that don't like the BSF ICT strategy. You can try to opt out and retain the funding by submitting an Alternative Business Procurement Case, but it’s hard work and the odds are not in the school's favour, however the system is there to be used, so do use it if you have a case. Otherwise you can just say ‘no thanks, we'll just take the building’, after all turning down investment that takes some leading schools backwards is sensible for everyone- not least the tax payer, but you've got to be realistic - are you really better than what your LEP is offering? That's going to depend on you, your LEP and how much tailoring to your needs the LEP is offering. Later waves seem much better at engaging with the schools ahead of contracts and specifications being drawn up than earlier ones, so decide what you must keep 'in house' (and why) and what someone else might be able to do for you. You could get the best of both worlds, but if people won't negotiate and take your views into account then get stuck into an opt out bid.

Here is the text of a speech I was asked to give in Westminster in March 2009 at a Parliamentary event chaired by Andrew Slaughter MP from the Education Select Committee on this issue. The entire transcript of this speech, the other speeches and the Q&A session was made available after the event, but to save people tracking a copy down here is my bit. It is very specific to my school though and getting a bit dated already, Sheffield has now moved ahead and we are very satisfied with what we have retained and how well the schools are working together on issues like 14-19. And I must say everyone at the LA, PfS and DCSF did come together and sort out a solution that worked for us and the city- so keep talking!

"The experience of BSF ICT procurement we have experienced offers nothing to a leading school which already has superb ICT provision and it damages ICT for all as it stops such schools innovating, taking risks and trailing new pedagogy that all schools have the potential to learn from. Whilst the ICT Managed service is universally unpopular amongst schools and the approach to delivering it from PfS varies between bullying and cloak and dagger it will improve ICT, albeit in a non-sustainable way, in most schools but not ours.

The ICT output specification we were expected to accept under BSF represented a retrograde step for us having already achieved everything in the specification and moved beyond. For example, for some years we have run a sophisticated online Virtual School that caters for more than just the learners’ needs. All stake holders including learners, teachers, parents and community members have access to a personalised online virtual school which we have developed and host ourselves with a mixture of commercial and open source tools we have put together behind one web portal.

The specifications of this far exceed most schools aspirations for their learning platform- for example we have ‘BBC Spring watch style’ live wildlife video web cams and meteorological data streaming on a dedicated web site.

Far from just being a system the Virtual School is a way of life, used by everyone. Parents in their hundreds log in every week to check up on their children’s attendance, behaviour, attainment and progress through a Real Time reporting system that has been running for some years and exceeds the government’s own target for online reporting not due until 2010 (although most schools are set not to meet this). It is no coincidence that we were running online reporting before it was mooted as a national expectation but when Jim Knight announced this at the BETT show he did so against a back drop of images from the system we use- good ideas have to come from somewhere.

None of the BSF schools who are already open have a system anything like ours- they still come to us for help even though we haven’t been through the process of ‘BSF transformation’.

The arguments for taking a managed service run something like this; it will remove schools from the burden of managing an ICT system and deliver them with a high quality reliable ICT system- this is a powerful argument in many schools but not in schools like ours. The performance of our system meets or exceeds all the key performance indicators set out in the output specification and our control over it is not a burden, it is the engine that drives innovation in teaching and learning onwards- if we want to make radical change like ditch a major software system in favour of another we can do that, our technical manager chairs the ICT strategy group and we employ ICT graduates through all ranks of management who work side by side with teachers on curriculum development.

Our technical team are not some small back-room low paid support team to keep a system running for a teaching team to use they are an integral part of a post workforce reform team with a one-staff culture where everyone employed by the same governing body whose performance is managed in terms of our collective progress towards school improvement based on learners’ achievements. BSF should be about developing the school not contracting parts of it out. Successful school improvement means root and branch reform steered by the vision Headteacher who can quickly react to opportunities and changes in circumstances. 5 year contracts describing what the best schools were doing 2 years ago are not transformational they are ‘stagnational’.

We have a long history of supporting other schools for example we are currently providing the leadership of a local National Challenge school that is without a Head Teacher- we certainly don’t have an insular ‘I’m alright Jack’ attitude, we are fully committed to system wide reform but to continue to be a leading school with something to offer the system of the future we must have the freedom to plot our own course- it’s not a rash risk to lets schools like us do this we in a position to have earned autonomy but it is a rash risk not to have any schools doing this.

The specification that PfS are delivering is based on good practice extracted from good schools and turned into a business model that was scalable and profitable enough to entice private companies into investing (although half the contracts have gone to one company so it’s not that attractive and we know it is getting tougher to secure the investments needed). The trouble is ICT doesn’t stand still and we need pioneers to forge ahead and find out how emerging technologies can impact on learning and be free enough to pounce on new technologies as they arrive- Interactive whiteboards and Virtual Learning Environments are already technologies of the past.

We have opted out of the BSF ICT managed service and are the only school in the area to do so and keep some of the funding as the opt-out rules have now been changed. We fully intend to continue to be an outward facing school showing what ICT can achieve but there will be many more schools in the same position as ours, BSF is still young. The DCSF will say there is a fair procedure in place for schools who feel the way we do- they have 42 days to produce an Alternative Business Procurement Case that the business experts in their Local Authority will have had 18 months to work on (in our case 107 pages long). This is a trick, there is no way any school can show economy of scale (even though I actually have the figures to prove we can- it won’t be accepted, it’s sacrilege to suggest it) or show ‘transference of risk’ (we don’t talk about transferring the risks of educating our children elsewhere, we talk about professionals taking responsibility in house- isn’t this a lesson from the credit crunch?)

The ‘opt out’ system should not be about making a case for alternative procurement but about bidding for a special status to be the jewel in the crown of BSF- that each authority should be looking for a pioneering lead school to earn the autonomy to chart the way forward with the freedom to run their own ICT system, if they want to, but with the responsibility to share the knowledge gained with the local, national and international education system. The system needs reforming before it is too late and the billions of £s investment fails to have the best impact."