Get ed tech right without blowing your budget —A guide for school leaders

IT can be a huge drain on resources, so the key to keeping a lid on costs is for schools to be clued up about their technology needs.

Schools are continuously dripping money into the big river of ed tech that all schools have become tributaries to.

When budgets are tight – as they are now – it is easy to view ed tech as a huge drain on resources. Yet schools would grind to a halt if we simply pulled the plug.

We rely on digital technology for everything from word-processing a worksheet to calculating the tax on staff payslips, projecting PowerPoint presentations and taking registers.

Of course, there are expensive gimmicks, but there’s plenty we can’t do without. We must remember that ed tech can be hugely beneficial to the smooth running of any school, not just in terms of managing ancillary processes but also contributing to the improvement of teaching and learning. Having said that, it’s important that ed tech budgets are managed well to ensure we get the most bang for our buck. Here’s how.

Manage the finances

Many school leaders would admit to “not doing technology” and, even in this day and age, are relieved to transfer all responsibility to the resident technology expert. The problem is that managing an ed tech budget well requires a close partnership between the network manager and the school’s senior and middle leaders.

The person (or, increasingly, the IT support company) in charge of the network needs to gain a keener understanding of the needs of the various sections of the school – support staff, teachers and students.

The flip side of this arrangement is that the school’s leadership needs to acquire a much better grasp of what technology can and can’t achieve, as well as the different financing options available to schools. “I don’t’ do technology” is simply a cop-out.

Get this partnership right and you will no longer have network managers blowing £40,000 at the BETT show just because they must spend this year’s budget, or school leaders cluelessly signing expensive contracts with purveyors of virtual learning environments (VLEs) that don’t integrate with the school’s management information system as promised and nobody can work out how to use the tech anyway. Knowledge, folks, is power.

Clued-up contracts

Mutual trust and understanding between technical and educational leaders is a great start but the partnership needs to be commercially savvy, too. While it is important to build a good working relationship with your suppliers, it probably pays to avoid the temptation to just ping an email to the usual supplier the next time you need to order 100 new desktop computers. Build relationships with several suppliers, not just the one who always buys you a coffee at BETT, and get them to compete against each other as a matter of course.

Good rules of thumb are to never tell suppliers what your budget is and to always get at least three quotes for every major purchasing decision, such as servers, network or desktop replacement programmes.

And if you find yourself frequently chasing the same supplier for a quote, it’s probably time to find one that needs you more than you need them.

Once you have your quotes, remember that everything is up for negotiation: who can get you a fourth year free if you sign a three-year deal? Can you push them to give you one more year’s free warranty than their competitors can offer? Who will throw in staff for free when you buy equipment for your students? But, beware – there may be an opportunity cost to these negotiations. You may be asked to give up one perk to obtain another. Here’s where a keen understanding of what your school does and doesn’t need comes in handy.

It’s important to note that your school must follow the European Union procurement directives, which the UK enforces through the Public Contract Regulations 2015. The threshold for goods and services is £164,176 (until the end of 2017). If your contract’s whole-life cost is above this threshold, you must advertise it in the Official Journal of the European Union.

Potential pitfalls

The journey towards getting technology to work well for schools takes place, more often than not, along a road paved with frustration and disappointment. The attractive promises made by the salesman after opening a generous tab at the bar may look less enticing when you drink in the small print in the cold light of day.

Did you consider what the insurance excludes? Did you spot the hidden clause with the unreasonable termination notice? Are updates required but not free? Will inflationary rises be automatically passed on to the school? Is the renewal of this expensive contract automatic? Would you wish it to be?

And beware of discounted periods, where contracts begin reasonably priced but the cost rises steadily after a year or two. This can be particularly frustrating at contract renewal time, especially if the suppliers perceive you as being tied in to their product.

Technology is continuously developing, which is great, but sometimes a product you bought two years ago can be upgraded with features you don’t really need but now find yourself having to pay for on renewal.

In such circumstances, you should stand firm and, if necessary, threaten non-renewal to keep within the original budget. Changing product or supplier may not be desirable for a host of reasons but it pays to keep your options open. Always remember that, although you may be under pressure to secure a solution or a product, ed tech salespeople are under pressure to close deals. Use this to your advantage.

Do you need it?

In my book, the most important consideration when purchasing educational technology is: will the children benefit, either directly or indirectly? Whether the technology will help children learn, teachers teach and the school run smoothly must be your priorities. The school’s context cannot be ignored in this and you would do well to consider your people and the overall culture.

That new VLE may be a wonderful piece of kit, with huge transformational potential, but it’s only as wonderful as the teachers who utilise it. Have you set aside money and time to train them how to use it? New interactive whiteboards across the school may be great but they won’t make learning better, good teaching will. Is your CPD budget suffering because the cash is being spent on technology? Teachers who are under pressure as it is, and are given neither time nor training, cannot be blamed for concluding that you’ve just spent a fortune on a fad that no one is ever going to use.

Nobody should spend vast sums on technology at the expense of professional development. Do so at your peril.

This article was originally published in the TES.


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