Last Friday, when the government announced the creation of Free Schools, they also announced that some of the capital funding for them would come out of this year’s Harnessing Technology Grant for schools and local authorities. Cutting ICT grants to fund Free Schools led to a certain amount of commentary from the education ICT community, across Twitter and blogs etc, so I’m going to steer very clear of the emotional side of it, but try and provide a summary of what’s going on to help you to plan ahead if you are in a school, and thinking about your ICT budget.
Funding for Free Schools results in a £50M cut Harnessing Technology Grant
Given that it was a manifesto commitment, it’s perhaps no surprise that the new government brought this initiative in so quickly. What was a surprise was that in order to pay for the capital costs of setting up Free Schools this year , they decided to dip into one of the few capital budgets that they could – the Harnessing Technology Grant . In total, they’ve shaved £50M from that grant, which is one quarter of the total amount available this year.
The Harnessing Technology Grant is a 3-year programme, running from 2008-2011 to provide £639M for schools and local authorities to fund some of the capital costs of specific parts of education ICT. This year the grant was £200M, and was allocated out via formula to local authorities . Each local authority was allowed to retain 25%, to fund central costs eg broadband provision, whilst 75% had to be devolved to schools.
The DCSF/DfE, through Becta, gave very specific guidance  on what the grant was for:
- Learning services: learning platform services, email services, personal storage areas for learners and staff and the infrastructure to access these services. Services need to support the safeguarding of learners, be available for all users inside and outside educational institutions including users’ homes and must be available outside core school hours.
- High-quality digital learning resources in line with Becta’s quality principles, taking advantage of national and local collaboration opportunities.
- Integration of learning and management systems at institution, local authority and – where appropriate – regional level so that data is available securely when and where it is required.
- Parental reporting: online access to reporting systems and information. Schools should provide timely, meaningful and manageable information to parents through appropriate and secure use of management information systems, learning platforms, managed learning environments, messaging services and other suitable online reporting systems.
- Broadband infrastructure to provide services, appropriate to need and safety, with sustainable plans for further development of local and regional networks to ensure that the necessary capacity and services are available.
- Simplified sign-on for users: establishing authentication and authorisation infrastructure capable of granting individual learners with secure anywhere/anytime access to educational resources – must be implemented in conjunction with the UK Access Management Federation using Shibboleth, with the local authority or Regional Broadband Consortium acting as identity and service provider.
And they also spelled out what it couldn’t be used for:
|The Harnessing Technology grant is a capital grant. It can be used to purchase computer software and digital learning resources provided that the resource being paid for can be treated as capital in accordance with normal accounting rules. This can apply to both one-off purchases of software resources, also licenses, depending on the terms of the contract. Subscriptions to services that provide digital curriculum resources on an ongoing basis would normally be treated as revenue, unless the service includes the creation of a capital asset owned by the purchaser. That is, ownership passes to the school or local authority at the end of the service period; or the school or local authority receive a licence to use the resource for a specified time period longer than one year.|
The reality, in some schools, is that head teachers saw it as “the ICT money”, and used that (and only that) as their ICT budget.
So what happens now?
Here’s some assumptions from me:
- The money was distributed to local authorities on a quarterly basis, so I’m guessing that the next few payments to local authorities will be smaller by £50M.
- The money retained by local authorities will probably mostly be already committed to long-term contracts for learning platforms and broadband provision
- So the cuts will mainly be in the amount passed on to schools – meaning that schools may lose between one quarter and one third of their grants
Before this news, when the grant was £200M, all local authorities will have told their schools how much grant they will get, and I’m sure that will have been factored into your schools budget at the full amount.
I think over the next few weeks, as the message gets out, you’ll probably be hearing from your local authority about their plans to ‘claw back’, or limit future payments, on the grant – and this will be somewhere between 25% and 33% of the year’s total.
But didn’t they say they were protecting school budgets?
There’s more on this issue on Merlin John Online, but in a nutshell, DfE say that the promise was to protect the revenue budgets (the stuff that pays salaries etc), but that no protection had been guaranteed for capital budgets 
So what do you do?
Now you’ve got all the facts, what do you do about it? Well, rushing off and spending your budget as quickly as possible isn’t wise (see above!), but perhaps it might be a good time to remind your head teacher about the primary purpose of the Harnessing Technology Grant (for the areas outlined above) and to continue the conversation about the strategic value of ICT in the learning process – not just for the subjects where it is core - like ICT, business studies, media studies – but across the whole curriculum.
And it might also pay to have a scour of the Top ICT Money Saving Tips, to see if there’s anything there that could help you to save money – not just in your budget, but in other department’s budgets in the school.