The introduction of Academies and free schools has fundamentally fractured the education market, and radically changed the role of the education channel partner. By being given the option to break away from local authority control and become state-funded, schools are enjoying much more autonomy over their ICT investments. While this provides schools with the freedom to be more creative with their budget and make purchasing decisions that meet their particular needs, this independence may also fragment state education, lowering standards no longer supported by a centralised infrastructure.
With no advisory body and 1,144 institutions already granted Academy status by the end of 2011, such schools will rely more on the channel to help them make the right ICT choices. The abolition of Becta and collapse of the Building Schools for the Future programme have created further challenges as schools no longer have the support network or funds to help drive standards and get the most value out of their investments. One of the biggest problems Academies and free schools face is an influx of relatively inexperienced ICT staff.
Free schools are being established by those with no education background, while Academies are increasingly relying on business-minded bursars to make the decisions. As a result, schools are either beginning to approach the market with little or no knowledge of the technology available, or with a completely different agenda to before. Resellers focusing on education opportunities may find themselves faced with uneducated or money-driven customers who simply cannot afford to invest in any technology that does not affect their fundamental performance indicators or demonstrate tangible financial benefits.
Yet it can be argued that less central control offers schools an opportunity to be more inventive, and perhaps make greater use of their ICT budget. Academy status not only allows schools to take more initiative, but also has the potential to give them the push they need into the 21st century - providing them with the ability to implement the most up-to-date technology.
Gone are the days when schools were tied to outdated, outsourced IT contracts, which local authorities signed for entire boroughs and rarely benefited individual institutions. Now they are able to explore new partnership opportunities and implement the best possible resources to support their needs and teaching environment.
Take, for example, cyber security, which is becoming more of a concern in most schools. With students increasingly computer savvy, schools are under heavier pressure than ever to protect both the students and the network itself from growing cyber threats, without placing severe restrictions on the classroom.
Another area to which schools are increasingly paying more attention is energy saving. I have heard that interest in offerings such as PC power management has risen significantly since the implementation of the Academies Act in July 2010 as schools become much more open minded about cost-saving measures.
Indeed, 78 per cent of those that have so far converted to Academy status have stated finance as a factor in their decision. Ultimately, while it is likely that schools already have traditional security and power-saving tools, such as anti-virus and desktop management offerings, this enables them to look for newer and more efficient technologies that may extend the life of current ICT systems or even essentially manage themselves. But so many institutions have little or no understanding or awareness of these solutions, so it really is time for channel partners specialising in education to up their game.
As the education environment evolves, so must the role of the channel partner. Think back 10 to 15 years, when there was much less technology in schools. Then adopt a back-to-basics approach in advising schools, making them aware of how technology can help them.
Dmitry Shesterin is vice president of product management at Faronics
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