Well you can be sure that up and down the country, the question “What do we do now?” has been asked in lots of schools and local authorities since the DfE announced the end of the BSF programme. I’ve heard lots of different opinions on the future in the last two weeks (and have even seen some people cycle through the five stages of grief – Denial, Anger, Negotiation, Depression and Acceptance).
Last week I had the chance to chat with Tom Ormerod, the BSF ICT Project Manager at Rotherham MBC about their plans going forward. They have been hard hit by the BSF announcement, as they were due to go ahead in their first phase with 5 secondary schools, 1 primary school and 3 Special Schools, and the DfE announcement means that it is likely that they’ll all be shelved. There may be a small reprieve for one primary, and one secondary which may go ahead with a rebuild as it becomes an Academy. The challenge for Rotherham is that their newer PFI schools in the borough are of a much higher standard than the rest, and they were hoping that BSF would bring all of their schools up to the same standard.
Tom described their reaction to the cancellation as:
|Shocked. Although everyone knew that there were going to be cuts and challenges, nobody expected such a dramatic and absolute end to the programme. It’s especially tough when our two neighbouring authorities are going ahead to the conclusion of their current programme.|
Of course, everybody – especially the Head Teachers and their teams - were deflated by it, but Tom described a sense of camaraderie that developed – with people aiming to make the best of a bad situation. Through the BSF planning Tom had formed a core group who’d defined an Output Specification and were ready to meet the suppliers to take it forward. And the critical issues was that BSF wasn’t just about the buildings, or just the ICT – it had been seen as a route to transform learning in Rotherham and to develop teaching and learning across all schools. Their attitude became “Just because BSF has ended doesn’t mean the work stops”. Which led to inevitable question of what could be saved from their plans
So where next now that BSF has gone?
Although there isn’t yet a full plan for how to move forward, what Tom’s ICT group has done is accept where they are, and see how much of their planning so far can be developed and implemented. For example, one of the team’s biggest challenges in the BSF model was to ensure that ICT teams in schools saw the positive benefits of the BSF process. Having focused on that, it would be a shame to lose momentum, and drop into a void.
Tom is focusing on some of the current provision – for example the Rotherham Grid for Learning (RGFL) broadband provision – which was due to transition as BSF came in. Tom described them as being “lucky to have fantastic high speed broadband connections to and between schools, and we want to continue to develop that”. In the past this had focused on Internet connectivity – with a 10MB link to the web – but now they are looking to completely refresh the whole infrastructure – networks, hubs, new servers – and implement new central services to help schools. For example, they plan to deploy the Live@edu email system across the whole authority to replace their existing central email service. With the new system, they will be using Forefront Identity Manager and ILM to make it easier for schools manage users, and they’ll also provide much larger mailbox sizes, the central solution will provide more flexibility to schools than their traditional central system.
OCG will be working with Rotherham’s joint venture partner, RBT, supporting Tom by implementing Single Sign On for the users – staff and students – which creates one RGFL account. That gives them a central learning portal account, which also acts as their internet, filtering, email and SharePoint login. And by integrating the account provisioning directly from the SIMS systems in each school, it means that as soon as a new student or staff member is added into SIMS, they will automatically get their new email account and SharePoint login setup. SharePoint 2007 is implemented across the borough for all of their schools, and Tom’s recently seen the usage jump up, to the extent that they are now working with 87 schools and service teams within the borough – allowing them to develop more effective collaboration.
As always though a few of the secondary schools will continue to opt out and run their own Exchange server. But the new plans has changed the view of some schools - two schools that had their own mail servers have changed their mind, and have decided to opt-in to the Live@edu service – bringing more schools back on board to the central service. As Tom says “That might increase further as more pressure arrives on budgets, and the schools realise that they can save money by switching to a hosted system.”
Of course, money is tight - the double whammy impact is that the Harnessing Technology Grant has been cut too – but Tom and the team are continuing to make the best of it. For example, although their original plan was to deploy Office Communications Server to improve collaboration and communication, they are now looking at how Windows Live Messenger, through Live@edu, can help them to achieve some of the planned goals.
Moving forward in the future
As Tom says:
It doesn’t mean doing all things centrally, but doing the right things centrally, and using the collaborative power of the schools to make better procurement choices.
IT, and the services it provides, are just another one of the school essential services. We need the services like we need the other utilities, and we can’t deliver learning without them.
The schools recognise that the central services are provided to them as part of the cost of the provision of their broadband. And some schools do choose to opt out of some of those services – some schools don’t want mail, some schools choose their own VLE – but the majority of schools choose the whole package of services, and it is more efficient and effective for us to provide those centrally, rather than every single primary and secondary school running their own.
Primary schools especially need simple central systems which can remove a headache – like making it very easy for them to add new users to the systems, which cuts down school workload and makes their life easier.
I have the advantage of a group of schools and head teachers that realise the benefit of working together and collaborating. That’s been a positive outcome of the planning that we have been doing for BSF . It would have been great to get shiny new schools, with shiny new kit and professional server rooms. But now BSF has gone we can at least look at saving the ideas we generated.