BSF and innovation

Jul 16, 2006

Miles Berry

Following on from the innovation theme of the last couple of posts, a story in last week’s Computing caught my eye, entitled “Schools plan stifles innovation“. It seems a number of folk are waking up to the idea that a centralised managed service for IT infrastructure in schools, whilst it might do much to improve the minimum entitlement, might at the other end of the specturm make it harder for schools to really push the boundaries, experiment, innovate or be creative in their choice and deployment, rather than simply their use, of technology.

This came up in the Commons Education and Skills Committee last week, where fears were expressed about more innovative SMEs losing out on the contracts as the BSF providers were going to opt for the big name, “safe pair of hands”, type firms, as we’re likely to see with Becta’s framework contracts for learning platforms at LA/RBC level too. The feeling is that by linking the ICT infrastrucure with the building contracts, we’ll see a relatively conservative vision of the contribution that computing can make. The man from the industry body Intellect, made explicit the need for more consultation with teachers and learners:

the first thing I would do is actually ask the end users, the teachers, the teaching profession, pupils, what it is that they want from their schools in the future, and take from them their views of what needs to be delivered.

Seeing the pupils as designers’ clients was the theme of a brilliant exhibition at the V&A last year, although I’m not sure how many LEPs in BSF would see pupils in these terms. It was interesting to see at least some acknowledgement in the evidence to the committee of the elephant in the room, that with the potential for networked, distributed communication, collaboration and learning that the internet affords, is there still the need to build physical, concrete schools for the future?

BSF includes a ‘local choice fund’ component so that schools can choose their preferred supplier, but I think this is limited to 10% of the overall ICT budget, with the actual level being up to the BSF provider themselves. Although part of the motivation for the public-private partnership model behind BSF is about cost savings, I’m not convinced that hypothecating large sums of money for IT infrastructure actually gives much incentive for schools to look for cost savings in this area, or to pursue much by way of in-house innovation, as we’ve seen with the e-learning credits: “we’ve got all this money for computers, now how can we spend it?” is a different question to “if we can save this much from our IT budget, what else could we spend it on?”.