Make the most of your resources

Help is at hand for those responsible for allocating the school's ICT funds. Steve McCormack reports

In most secondary schools, there's a door on a corridor somewhere with the words ICT Manager, Network Centre or something similar on the outside. Inside lives a person whose duties range wildly, from changing a computer keyboard after a teacher has spilt their coffee, to making decisions on how to invest tens of thousands of pounds on new hardware.

In primary schools, these tasks are often undertaken by the person working behind the door that says Class 3 - namely an ordinary teacher who may have some knowledge of IT.

Whoever does the job, it's a substantial responsibility and one that's often underestimated and under-valued. But the educational establishment is increasingly recognising the importance of the role and has put in place a number of different mechanisms to help individuals make the right decisions for their schools.

Nothing can be undertaken on the ICT front, of course, without hardware, the buying of which is the starting point for every school. Although all schools now have computers of some sort, procurement remains an ongoing consideration as facilities are enhanced and, increasingly, whole networks (often installed a decade ago) are replaced.

Taken across the whole country, this is gigantic business, and one into which the supplier companies pour huge amounts of marketing and sales resources. Some ICT managers would admit to feeling overwhelmed by sales teams' slick presentations, followed by a seemingly irresistible invitation to sign on the dotted line.

One central reference point for just these sort of procurement dilemmas is the Independent ICT Procurement Advisory Service (www.ipas.ngfl.gov.uk) that was set up by the DfES in 2001 in response to pleas for help from schools across the country.

Their website guides schools through the process of gathering information about products, writing requests for tenders and quotations, understanding the procurement jargon and managing expenditure.

John Gregory, from the DfES arm, the British Educational Communications and Technology Agency (Becta) was central in the site's design. "We have aimed to provide the necessary documents and processes for every conceivable stage of the process," he says.

Becta is also trying to push schools towards issuing functional specifications, in other words what they want to be able to do with ICT, rather than technological ones. Once investment decisions have been made, Becta can provide lists of accredited suppliers to save schools the time of checking out the reliability of individual hardware companies. In the case of laptops and interactive whiteboards, Becta has already set up framework contracts with selected suppliers.

Gordon Chapman, Network Manager at Fullbrook School, a comprehensive in Surrey, says managers should always shop around for smaller one-off purchases. "I'll have a look at websites such as Dabs, Insight or eBay to try to get a good deal. Or possibly use a local supplier, which might cost a little more, but I'll get a better service," he says.

When it comes to buying software, the ICT manager will, naturally, be working closely to find out what teaching staff require. Here, organisations such as Schoolzone - an independent software evaluater commissioned by the DfES to consult with teachers and review educational resources - can help out. Read their reviews in this supplement and at www.schoolzone.co.uk.

Another venture, promoted by the Specialist Schools Trust, is designed to help teachers from different schools share experience on different software. Schools that have bought and used a specific piece of software register with the site www.ict-register.net and offer their experience to anyone interested. Teachers or ICT co-ordinators can then talk to each other and find out exactly how the software has been used, based on actual classroom experience.

LEAs, too, play a role. All have departments that can help schools with ICT decisions - of particular importance for primaries, where there may be little in-house expertise.

So there is no shortage of help and advice. The knack lies in deciding which resources are gong to best suit an individual school and making the big decisions, while Billy Dawkins from Year 8 is banging on the door saying he's forgotten his password.

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