I have recently taken over as ICT Leader at Riders and this is the third time, in my third school, that I have held this role. Each time there has been investment in hardware, but this has been done in very different ways. I was tweeting a few people about a recent difficulty I was having and I suggested a blog post, they said it might be a good idea, so here it is.

In my first school, I was new and I didn’t control the budget at all. I was once asked for my opinion on what to do with some money a few weeks before the end of the financial year, so I picked a trolley of laptops and I chose which wireless system to install, but that’s about it. Spending wasn’t high on the priority list at all.

In my second school, I was ICT Leader from about 3 months before I actually started. The school had RM machines and were about to upgrade to the next round of RM machines. The wireless wasn’t working and consisted of a couple of D-Link routers that get wheeled around from here to there. I didn’t like the idea of the RM machines, I wanted something more like the home experience with a desktop rather than a “child-friendly” thing that they were offering. From the May before starting to the August saw significant spending, probably £30,000 on a new network, new server, upgraded switches and cabling, a managed wireless and also a trolley of netbooks. Many people hate them, but these were awesome. On in under 5 minutes and managed everything we could throw at them. They were such a hit, we bought another trolley worth 3 months later. This was all done on a leased basis and organised by the head teacher. Throughout the three years I was at the school, we had a few thousand now and again to buy some cameras, replace staff laptops or buy a few tablets, but not much else. It was all very much reliant on that first spend. Each time I wanted something, I spoke to our ICT suppliers and a few days later it was in school and working. Job done.

It is only now, at Riders, that ICT has become a difficult issue. It started when I took over and looked around both schools (we are federated) and realised that we needed a lot of infrastructure in place before we could think about buying laptops, tablets or anything exciting. Initial quotes put this at around £50,000 for both schools to be at a good stage to move forward with a sensible amount of kit. I was then told by our finance officer that as it went over £25k per school, there were EU laws in place that said I had to write a tender for companies to apply to be our installer. I’d never heard this before. I tweeted, not many people did this either. In two years training ICT leaders across Hampshire, no-one had ever asked me for help or advice on the tendering process. I got asked about a lot of things and purchasing was always on the list, but surely someone, somewhere had spent more than £25k in one year…right? I spoke to ICT Leaders in Hampshire via our mailing list, everyone that replied told me “get three quotes, that’s all we do”. I said this to the Hampshire finance team and was (angrily) told that just because no-one else follows the rules, doesn’t mean that I have to break them too. I was also told that if I didn’t go to tender, any IT company that finds out and hasn’t been given the chance to apply for it, can sue me or the headteacher personally. I didn’t fancy that.

This left me in a tricky situation. How do you get help on something that no-one else seems to do? Luckily Rob Harrison is an amazing secondary IT bloke of some kind and had written a tender for a project last year. I was able to get a copy and edit it to our desired spec. This took 4-5 days of the Easter holiday to do. Time was of the essence because I need to make a decision by half-term so that installation can take place over the Summer holidays. The tender was written, sent to some lovely people to read through and comment on and then sent to the head teacher.

Day 1 of the Summer term, I was excited. I thought I could send the tender to Hampshire and then we’d be on our way. Except the pages to upload the tender too can only be accessed inside school. That’s ok, I though. I was in school anyway. I clicked the link…enter username and password. I tried the variety of details we have for Hampshire-based things and they all failed. I phoned Hampshire. They appeared to say it was my fault! I tried other people, Hampshire IT help-based people, they hadn’t seen the form before so didn’t know how to access it. They all said “it works here in Hampshire offices” which didn’t help me as I was in a Hampshire school, not an office. Different system apparently.

So again, I wondered, had anyone ever completed this form?

Had anyone in Hampshire schools ever submitted a tender?

Are there schools spending over £25k and breaking rules?

Should I set up an IT company and start suing schools? (obviously I joke, but I was going a little mad at this stage)

In the end, due to time constraints, we have now decided to scale back our plans for this summer so that we can get the essential stuff done and so that we fall under the tender pricing structure. However this now means that as we fall into the 10-25k bracket, we need to complete a “mini-competition” and get three quotes and submit forms to Hampshire. Guess what? Those forms are password protected and not accessible either! I give up!

Why is it so difficult?

To sum up, what have we learnt from this? I’m not sure. I totally understand that there are procedures to follow. After all, this is public money, I definitely don’t want to get it wrong, but where is the support? Where is the help to do this correctly?

Let’s hope there is some ICT-related improvement before September.