Is Outsourcing ICT Support Becoming Inevitable in Education?
Martin Pipe, Head of Service Scope & Design at RM Education, explores the growing trend in schools seeking to outsource or co-source their IT support services as a measure to not only save time and cost, but to manage risks, access expertise and future-proof their technology provision.
According to RM Education’s latest annual survey, a growing number of schools are now considering outsourcing and co-sourcing their IT support in order to keep up with the constant changes in technologyand minimise overall support costs.
As moving to the cloud continues to help schools drive down expenditure and enhance learning, educational institutions of all sizes are also beginning to look for IT partners who can not only help them transition to the cloud, but provide ongoing IT support and expertise as the breadth of available technologies develops.
In guidance issued in July this year, the Department for Education (DfE) reiterated that the marketplace is increasingly seeing cloud services as the way forward, but advises schools to select a knowledgeable and experienced service provider that shares the school vision and can provide both initial and ongoing assistance.
They also stipulate that ‘as the complexity of locally hosted, school based ICT solutions increases, it can become more and more challenging to ensure the same level of reliability in respect of the ICT provision in schools’ – making the support of a trusted partner in this journey essential. So what are the key influencing factors driving a growing number of schools to outsource or co-source?
“You’d think there would be a clear starting point, but the motivators for outsourcing IT services are different for every school as it depends entirely on the long-term and unique issues they face,” says Martin.
“However, there’s often a more critical driver, such as their existing systems aren’t working well enough, technology is too slow or failing during lessons, infrastructure isn’t supporting new apps and software, the cost of in-house IT support is too high or they’ve had a change of senior leadership who has brought in new ideas.”
Cost is still a prominent factor in the decision to outsource IT support and services - almost half the schools surveyed cited cost as a central influence for bringing in third party support – whilst riskmanagement is another key driver, both from a technical and a staff perspective.
Outsourcing IT support allows schools to transfer the risk of day-to-day mishaps and any other risks associated with IT to the service provider, as well as providing cover for sickness and holidays. It also minimises any disruptions from technology, as IT partners providing managed services to schools can run proactive checks on the schools’ systems throughout the day to instantly pick up and rectify issues before they become a problem.
Conversely, co-sourcing IT support can fill in gaps in internal expertise and save schools time, money, and effort in recruiting additional staff. By combining services from within the school and from a well-chosen partner, both parties can work to achieve the same goals.
Bridging the gap
However, perhaps the greatest motivator of all is no longer simply about cost, but about addressing the widening technology skills gap; in today’s competitive marketplace and with technology moving at a rapid pace, schools are finding it increasingly difficult to attract the right type of IT specialists to support them. This trend is again reflected in RM’s survey, with 60% of schools citing the need for additional skills and expertise as the most important motivating factor.
“Schools have so many of their own challenges that recruiting top IT talent – quite understandably - tends not to be their main priority,” says Martin. “However, the problem is that when they do try to find the right staff, the marketplace is tough – they’re competing with the enterprise IT market and candidates can often get much more from an organisation than from a school.
“As technology becomes an increasingly integral part of education, schools need IT expertise in multiple types of technology, which leaves them with two choices; to find a single IT support specialist with the knowledge and expertise of five different people, which is almost impossible – or to employ multiple experts to cover the vast range of technologies, which is very expensive.
“When an IT issue occurs that goes beyond the expertise held locally – such as server failure, or pupils not being able to log into something – schools have to rely solely on their Network Support Manager or IT technician, who may not always be able to help. This puts schools in a vulnerable situation as it could ultimately lead to hours of lost teaching time and major classroom disruptions.
“And that’s where outsourcing or co-sourcing IT support can become a major advantage for schools, as whatever the issue, they have access to the infinite expertise of a much larger organisation with every possible skillset they need.”
But while existing IT support staff may perceive outsourcing as a threat, the reality is often that they are not only benefiting from broadening their skillset by working with third party IT support providers, butare actually freed up to concentrate on offering more practical, hands-on IT support around the school.
The DfE’s guidelines agree that ‘reducing the costs of managing and supporting a school’s ICT infrastructure can make more effective use of available in-house technical support’ and that ‘staff may be refocused away from purely technical support of a multitude of in-house systems towards supporting the uptake of the ICT and thus delivering improved benefits for the teaching and learning outcomes.’
Martin adds: “When you think about the sheer scale of what an IT technician has to do – from in-class support for teachers using ICT and proactive and reactive management and repair to monitoring security updates and load times and everything in between, it’s becoming almost impossible for them to achieve everything on their list without the support of a third party.
“For Network Managers, the plethora of responsibilities is even more pronounced; in addition to network and server management they have to manage tight budgets, constantly monitor performance, implement and manage filtering and safeguarding policies, produce monthly reports and manage their team – as well as staying up to date on the changing technologies and developing an intrinsic understanding of how they can support teaching and learning. Ultimately, that model isn’t sustainable.”
Bringing in a third party IT partner allows IT technicians, Network Managers and Business Managers to reclaim the headspace they need to focus on the more important tasks; rather like having a smoke alarm – you can confidently walk around your house knowing that if anything happens, you’ll be told.
A good IT partner should understand and support this, working as a ‘wrap around’ in synchronicity with the schools’ existing service.
One school who has first-hand experience of the benefits of outsourcing is The London Oratory School, one of England's oldest and most distinguished Catholic state-funded boys’ schools with a mixed sexsixth form provision.
Kirsty Alderton is Director of ICT & Learning Technologies for both curriculum and non-curriculum IT, and before making the decision to outsource The London Oratory School’s IT services, she had struggled with an unenthusiastic ICT team who lacked the specialist knowledge Kirsty needed to move to a new 21C environment.
Sickness and absenteeism due to external factors were often an issue, and Kirsty became keen to break the mould and bring in fresh blood. In addition, the school was facing budgeting challenges; through co-sourcing, they have been able to drive down costs and reinvest funds back into ICT to buy desktop devices.
“Moving to a co-sourced model has allowed me to forget about the day-to-day IT issues and focus on strategy, training and future direction. I can act as a conduit between our Senior Team and our service provider, RM, and simply escalate any issues as they arise to be dealt with off-site,” says Kirsty.
The on-site engineers at The London Oratory School have gone from being locked away in a server room managing back-end issues to being freed up to support the day-to-day IT needs of the school. They have now moved into an efficient helpdesk role based on the shop floor so that students and staff can approach them with issues directly.
“I can see outsourcing becoming a major trend because it means schools no longer need to worry about their infrastructure and IT facilities, and can get back to focussing on school matters,” says Kirsty.
“And when you factor in the long-term benefits and add in all the extra services - such as specialists, escalation points, strategy, knowledge, background support, sickness cover and valuable access to best practice from other schools they support - you’re not only getting more value for money but you’re helping to future-proof your school.
“And in a world where technology is changing so quickly, that’s absolutely essential.”
For more information, visit www.rm.com