At the NAACE conference I ran into an old friend, Sheyne Lucock, who is the General Inspector for BSF (Building Schools for the Future) and ICT at Barking and Dagenham Local Authority. Sheyne has always been somebody who's done things "his own way" - not concerned about what way the crowd is going, and very focused on what is right for his schools in the area. One of the most visible examples is what they chose to do under the DfES ICT Test Beds project, when they ignored the mandate to put an interactive whiteboard into every classroom, but instead put a massive display screen with a wireless digitising slate and pen.

Sheyne's new role (and job title) now focuses work on BSF,  where local authorities are responsible for the programme of rebuilding or renovating all of the secondary schools within their area. Some local authorities have an attitude that suddenly they are able to grab back some of the control over schools that they have had to give up over the last 15 years. I've even heard some authorities saying "We will decide what will happen - because they are our schools; they don't belong to the head teacher". Well, not every authority has that attitude, and Sheyne represents one of those. I had the chance to talk to Sheyne about how they were designing the ICT service for their BSF schools - and his story is a fascinating insight into how to share a decision-making process across a wide group of people, all with their own individual views.

Sheyne, what's the background to your BSF project?

FirstquotesThe BSF programme's ICT assumptions are that there will be a managed service. When I and my colleagues started our view was opposed to managed services. Which was the same mind set as the schools. We felt that having that common starting point was actually critical to start work. As an authority, we felt we'd been innovative and had kept a lot of in-house expertise, and we didn't want a managed service to be "done to us".But I realised that the starting point was to put myself into the mind set of everybody else in the game.

Our secondary schools had always been responsible for their own ICT strategy, procurement and management. But in practice they relied on the local authority a huge amount - they adopted the authority wide email system, server platform, Internet service and filtering services - because that was what their choice was, rather than because we forced it upon them. The schools all chose their own server platforms - and with our support, all choose the same one. As an authority, we operated a low-level central support team - a kind of second-level collaborative support network, rather than a formal service to schools with a set of Service Level Agreements. It matched up with our schools mindset of collaboration.Endquotes

So you're in this nirvana - and along comes BSF with its monolithic, managed services approach.

FirstquotesAt first, it was quite scary and challenging - because we could see the big programmes , like the Dudley and Northern Ireland managed services, which had been designed to replace, rather than supplement, the existing ICT strategy. Our schools too were nervous - they feared losing their autonomy. And so the secondary school head teachers unanimously voted against the idea of a managed service.

But as an authority, we knew that we couldn't opt out of a managed service contract for BSF - unlike other authorities, we didn't have an existing service arrangement or procurement framework. As a blank canvas we had no justification to being allowed to do things differently from the BSF model.Endquotes

So what happened next - you had no choice?

FirstquotesYes, it was clear from the BSF programme team at Partnership for Schools (PfS)that if we wanted the BSF programme to go ahead in our authority, we had to accept a managed service for the schools' ICT - as part of a normal BSF project. And the stakes were high - we had all of our schools in a single wave of BSF, we had to convert all of our schools in one go. We knew we couldn't fight and win against a managed service - so instead, we focused our energy on what we could influence to get the best outcome for all of our schools. We wanted to make sure that we effectively worked with our schools, to get a managed service that matched and improved upon the service our schools have already.

For us, it meant changing our local authority team, and the schools mind set - that if we worked on defining clearly what we wanted, we'd have a chance of getting it. And we knew we had to make that an inclusive process - in fact, we wanted the schools to own the process and for the local authority team to be the facilitator for it. We wanted to be clear that we weren't making all the decisions regardless of the school.Endquotes

How did you get started on this process?

FirstquotesWe identified a head teacher who was very independently minded in relation to ICT and who probably took most control of his school's ICT and their procurements - and asked them to be the representative of all of the secondary head teachers, and to be the head teachers' ICT champion. We also wanted a Governor ICT champion - and recruited a chair of governors who we knew was very opposed initially to a managed service.

What that meant was that we had the arguments and debates amongst a smaller group - especially of those most opposed. We knew that if we could convince ourselves, we stood a good chance of convincing the other schools and representing the case most effectively to them. We were designing for schools that weren't going to open for at least 2 years. At this point we didn't involve managed service providers, because we felt that we were designing a service that didn't yet exist.

It took three weeks for us to prepare to meet all of the head teachers. We presented our view of how the managed service could work, ensuring that we had clarity of what we could influence. For example, we didn't really feel that we'd be deciding on the core service infrastructure - like the network points, servers, wireless etc - because that would be the service provider's decision. But we knew that we could influence how the system was accessed - what kind of access devices; the mobility of the devices; how we wanted the system to offer personalisation for individual schools.

Retrospectively, it was a good decision - to focus on what we could influence rather than what we couldn't.

We asked the head teachers to nominate a member of the senior leadership team - somebody with a pedagogical brief, and with an interest in the schools' ICT. This team had responsibility to become the communicators to the schools, and to understand their schools' needs and expectations of the new ICT service, and work with us to define the specification.Endquotes

So how did you create your requirements?

FirstquotesThe PfS team provide a standard "Output Specification" (309 pages in two handy zip files), which describes a core specification for the ICT service, which we are expected to personalise to our authority. What we added to this was the individual requirements of all of the schools - following workshops with stakeholders in the schools, including the staff and some of the students.

We created a "local authority" column - into which we put the common requirements from all of the schools. And then had a workshop were all the non-common things were discussed, and we agreed on all of the extra things we needed to include from the schools' list. It meant that at the end of the day, we had an agreed list of the whole authority's requirements, and there was nothing left in the individual schools column - except for one areaEndquotes

What was it?

FirstquotesThe single area of differentiation was the end-user devices - some schools want students to have individual devices, whilst others wanted a desktop model (they assumed that they could take advantage of the devices that every student seems to carry around today).

Some of us had been to Seattle in 2007, and saw various interpretations of "the future". We felt that one of the major 'Wow' factors was the screen size - yes, you can watch a video on a personal device like an iPod or a mobile phone, but watching it on a large screen creates a wow. And we wanted to give the flexibility for individual schools to create that 'wow' in whatever way they wanted it.Endquotes

How did you resolve the disagreement?

FirstquotesWell, we had another workshop! The second workshop was used to re-confirm the decisions and documents agreed at the first meeting. And then we handed out the access devices sections from all of the schools - to allow schools to compare to other schools, and allow them to pick up ideas from other schools. From that we created three focus areas - interactive classrooms, learner toolkits (including fixed and portable devices), and finally personal teacher devices.

Again all of the schools were able to compare notes, and to choose an appropriate model for them. We've ended up with more standardisation in the "interactive classrooms" section. On the others, although there were different models chosen by the schools, they ended up in three main models. Interestingly, no schools wanted all of their children to have mobile devices which would become their main device - where they did want mobile devices, they didn't see them as the main device for in-school use. Endquotes

What have you learned through the whole process?

FirstquotesThe key thing we have found is that schools have got to own the process, and the local authority has to be seen as supporting the process. Our schools will end up with what they have collectively asked for. The stronger the agreement, the higher the quality of the service that they'll get. We know that where there is a common agreement, we'll be able to procure more effectively for the schools. Everybody is in it together - both the authority and the schools were in the process and the decision making together. And this meant that at no stage did we have to tell schools what they could have - it was all arrived at through joint agreement. The power of sharing the grid of each school's requirement was that every school could see exactly where they stood in relation to the others, and helped them to clarify their requirements such as the mix of large display screens and interactive whiteboards..

The final step was to get all of the head teachers to sign off the procurement specifications, and the governors to sign off the funding proposals.Endquotes

You've got all of your schools in agreement - what happens next?

FirstquotesWe'll soon be going into the procurement stage, in the summer, when the potential suppliers will get asked to provide the services that the schools have defined. We know it's going to be a difficult process, but I know that we've got all the schools behind us. If suppliers start to tell us that we're asking for the wrong thing, then they've got all of the head teachers to debate with!Endquotes


What do I think about this?

I think that the approach taken in Barking and Dagenham is an obvious approach to including the schools effectively in the BSF programme - my question to you is - is your local authority as inclusive? What are your experiences? Do you feel that you are going to be given enough say in your BSF developments?