Survival of the fittest: how Kent County Council are bucking the trend


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Mark Reynolds (Schools Business Manager) went to the Kent County Council iT11 conference last week, and found out that despite what you might have read, it’s not all doom and gloom for Local Authorities…

 

There has been a lot of talk recently about the demise of the Local Authority (LA) and the new government has said a lot about giving local power to individual schools. This has typically meant that decision making on IT spend and strategy is increasingly being placed in the hands of head teachers and IT staff in schools. When I first started working in the Education market, everything from broadband, to learning platforms, to whole school building projects were funded through central pots of money that were given to the LA. Now that Academies are becoming more common and councils are often finding themselves on new ground; needing to change the way they work and in some cases change the whole structure of their organisations. They have to think, and act, more and more like commercial businesses.

Basic RGBIt’s true that in some areas, the LA seem to have somewhat “given up”. They are making senior Education posts like Education Director, or Head of Children’s Services, redundant and I recently heard a school leader say, of their council, that “I think they’ve now lumped schools in with parks and cemeteries”. However, based on what I saw in Kent last week – the demise of the Local Authority has been greatly exaggerated. Far from shrinking in the current climate, some LA’s are seeing the changes in our public sector as an opportunity for expansion into other areas.

Last Wednesday, I attended the Kent County Council iT11 conference in Ashford. The EIS team in Kent have been providing IT services to their schools since the early 80’s and operate as a business unit within KCC. They offer a wide range of central services from the “traditional” LA delivered SIMS support and network management, to their innovative SharePoint 2010 platform Kent Learning Zone (or KLZ). Over 350 schools buy their services and rely on them to deliver a stable, reliable platform, giving the children in Kent the best possible experience of IT at school.

So how have Kent managed to keep their schools on-board, when some LA’s are failing to? I asked Andy Sheppard, Innovation and Strategy Manager for EIS.

“Not all schools want to go it alone. There are things we do with KLZ that you just can't do as a single school. You can’t do everything for everyone - schools like to have choice and do what they want to do - but still ultimate aim for them is to get all schools on a single platform. That’s what we started off with 4 years ago (when KLZ was first designed). When we get to Microsoft Lync (which has just been added to KLZ) all of those collaboration and communication features become so relevant again - schools can see each other, talk to each other, share and collaborate. There is still a huge amount of value in that. I'm a realist and I know that it’s hard to get all teachers using everything we do, they are busy people - but it’s about taking simple steps and adding things when you feel confident.”

Jamie Pla, who works in Andy’s team, added:

“We also give schools full access to SharePoint and a management console that lets them be in control. We are not in the business of saying no, about any of our services. If a school wants us to unblock access to Twitter, then that’s their decision. We are a business and they are our customers, but I’m not sure all LA’s are yet in that mind-set.”

KLZ was part funded by the Harnessing Technology grant money, which has now stopped. This situation seems to be signalling the collapse of some central LA “learning platform” rollouts, so again – why is this not happening in Kent? Clare Hewett is Head of the EIS business unit:

“When the central funding stopped, we had to go out and talk to schools and ask them to renew with their own budget (so far, over 75% of Kent schools have signed up, even though they now have to fund it themselves). KLZ is the platform to deliver services to schools in the future, and is growing and developing all the time. We have to make our offering better than the other options available to them, and also continue to offer our schools great service. They know us, and trust us, and there is a lot to be said for that – especially in primary schools who can’t afford to employ IT experts themselves. KLZ is a great platform that is scalable and meets the needs of any school from large secondary’s to small primary’s”.

The political changes in the last year have made LA’s work harder and think differently, but that is no bad thing. Kent are not the only LA I have visited who still have their schools on board and are looking at expanding their reach. In a large number of cases, the Local Authority are still providing the best service, at the best price – so when making a decision about your IT strategy, don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater. Yes, things have changed for schools and you all face some tough decisions in the next few years, but there is still a lot to be said for maintaining strong local communities and that is exactly what I saw in Kent at iT11. So keep talking to your LA, and challenge them to help you with your requirements. You might just be pleasantly surprised.

Mark Reynolds, School Business Manager, South of England, Microsoft

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