That’s another fine mess you’ve gotten us into…

The history of online access in UK schools is a long one. For me it started in 1976 with the introduction of an acoustic coupler linked to a phone line in the cupboard in the back of Room 41. I was, I hasten to add, a student at this time, not a teacher! You can read more about those exciting times here. From memory it was a 300baud connection, which doesn’t compare well with current day connections which can be several hundred thousand times faster. But it only had to drive a line printer, so it was ok.

Through the years to the mid to late 90’s schools existed on a dial-up diet, eventually reaching the awesome speeds of 56k baud.

Then something happened.

The World Wide Web.

For good or ill there was a recognition that schools would have to access the internet, both to operate effectively as organisations and to benefit teaching and learning. And this was a very different time. Any infrastructure changes in schools was largely considered to be the responsibility of “someone else”. And so, at this point, it started to go horribly wrong. Regional Broadband Consortia were formed to deliver the national educational internet infrastructure. Schools were, in effect, told – “Don’t worry, someone is doing this for you.”

And that was the problem. They were doing it for them. Or, as some cynics might say, “to them”. As usual with such projects an intolerable amount of time was taken up discussing just what was to be done. An intolerable amount of time was taken up in procurement exercises. An intolerable amount of time was taken up sending engineers into schools to look at power supplies and cupboards. And then an intolerable amount of time was taken up waiting for them to do, well, anything really.

Worse still was the bundling that occurred. The attempt to foist on schools bundled materials from organisations matey with the RBCs. Hands up who has used the ‘free’ services linked to their broadband connection? No, not seeing very many. But everyone had to pay for them. When you were lucky enough to receive your by then underpowered connection you were paying an arm and a leg for it so that a few schools could watch one or two Pathé news videos and a couple of ropey email accounts. Ok, we did get internet filtering. In our school it blocked access to the National Curriculum, with the message “This site is unsuitable for schools”. That’s not  joke, it happened.

This process took years. During this time i worked with many schools who were chomping at the bit (no pun intended) to get access but were not even told where in the programme their school was. One of our local primaries had to wait over three years to get connected. My own personal annoyance was the lengths I had to go to so the school could enable external access to our servers – to facilitate school wide email and VPN access to in school services. This eventually required the intervention of the DfE (or whatever it was called then) on our behalf to explain to the RBC their own contract.

And where has all this got us? We still have schools with vastly underpowered internet connections. Primaries in particular are very badly served. We still have schools paying inflated prices for services they don’t use.

We now have the unbelievable situation of an RBC writing to schools in a manner that would shame a Nigerian 419 scammer, after it has blocked access to those schools to emails from a competitor organisation. My company sells stuff to schools, and we frequently are blocked in our attempts to legitimately access decision-makers in schools by those with vested commercial interests, but this shocked even me. Were I a client of this RBC I would change provider on principle.

But the bigger problem caused by the RBC approach to connectivity is this. The expertise is in the wrong place, it’s of the wrong type and there is not enough of it. The “we’ll do all this for you” approach has led to many schools having little or no internal capability when it comes to IT – this issue is particularly apparent at primary level (and that’s not a dig at primary schools, it’s a condemnation of those that have put them in that position). Where the capacity exists it is too often dedicated to looking after and protecting local servers. As I argue here, that era is over.

My advice to schools is this. Buy an internet connection, not a subscription to see old Laurel and Hardy movies. Buy twice the amount you think you need. Buy it from two different providers that have different physical routes into the school. This, I know will be hard for some smaller schools to take on. Well, here is an example of where collaboration can be beneficial. Get together with your local group of schools and organise this. Make sure you have someone in your building who understands enough about this connectivity so that you do not end up paying for old Laurel and Hardy movies instead of bandwidth.

Your need for connectivity is not going to go away. Take control and do it, rather than being done to.

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23 thoughts on “That’s another fine mess you’ve gotten us into…

  1. When a school is given the choice of supplier/solution/technology, then getting good advice is crucial. What frustrates me with this current issue is that there’s an assumption by the Grid/LA that all commercial providers are charlatans out to fleece customers with inferior product (they are not) and the assumption by many schools that the Grid/LA is the epitome of innovation, knowledge, probity and selflessness (they are not).

  2. This is a critical issue for equality and equity. Access to the world of learning should NOT be dependent on postcode connectivity. It also needs teachers and staff working with learners to have the confidence and capablity to make use of connectivity.

    It beggars belief that the ETAG.report recommendations on Access and Connectivity (the group I chaired) are still awaiting a response from DfE Ministers!

  3. Procurement and grouping together:
    Anyone heard of EU Open Journal?
    If a group of schools bands together and the amount goes over £140K, then they will have to do an OJEC – without the legal and constitutional help. This was one reason for the delays. It adds at least 6 months on to any procurement.
    The other was the Government – which said 20% of an LEA’s schools in year 1, 45% by year 2, then 65, 85 and 100% – covering five years.
    I got all Harrow Schools on inside an 18 month period once we could start. Some LA’s had problems as they did not get the grant money up front to pay for the Installs. I managed by planning a three year budget and being allowed to even out the payments.

    Also 2Mbps would not be enough for two streams of video (as stated here) and by that time that an upgrade would be inevitable, the Grant Money would have been spent, making an upgrade v expensive. It would also be needed before schools realised the benefits.

    This is why LGfL (which started a year later than other RBC’s) moved to dedicated fibre to each school which could be upgraded without fresh install costs.

    It has continued that way since and schools can start at 10, and go up in multiples of 10Mbps steps to 100 (or for heavier usage, start at 100 and go up in multiples of 100 to 1 Gbps. Within the capability range selected, upgrades normally take a week or so.
    These are direct, symmetric fibres which do not share kit with any other system – and are uncontended right out to the Internet – where LGfL has 140Gbps of Internet Bandwidth. (That’s bigger than Dubai folks)

    I wonder what standard the prices quoted in the BBC articles were based on. Apples and Pears?
    It looks like FTTC, which is asymmetric, contended and not available everywhere (and no better than anyone could get at home)

    It also seems to not include a managed firewall and filtering (from their website)

    Regarding the comments that schools need to build their own capability, schools did not have that capability 10 years ago, and many will not have now. One head once asked me why I would not allow LogMeIn – ‘what right have you got to stop me’ – but she had never heard of the CESG and Cabinet Office Requirements for handling sensitive data.

    I was just one of those preventing schools from doing as they pleased and suffering the consequences.

    1. The answer to the apples and pears issue is simple. LGfL (and other RBCs) should tell schools what they are paying for each element within the bundles they offer. Pretending that the add-ons they include provide real value is only something that can be contested in an open market. What are they so scared of?

      The comment you make regarding LogMeIn is indicative of two things. Firstly, the Headteacher is the person who should decide what systems operate in their school, not you. They are more than capable of making decision regarding sensitive data in their schools. Secondly it makes my point that the understanding of such systems is in the wrong place.

      1. So should EXA and Rory what they are using as a comparison to LGfL, and they were the ones that started this.

        When I implemented the first LGfL in Harrow, a competitor called me and insisted that I put them in front of schools. I said that I was only too happy to do so, provided that they would indicate clearly what the schools would get for the money, and with a comparison with the LGfL offering.
        Result?
        I explained that for both the set up costs and annual costs of one direct Internet feed at 10Mbps (and no protection at all) from that competitor, the school could get one 100Mbps AND one 5Mbps service with all the protection that came with it. They reversed out pdq.

        If a head has not heard of the rules, how exactly do they make an informed decision on sensitive data?
        It was not for the want of explaining to them.

        BTW, on LGfL1, I was the person who would wind up in Court if it had gone nastily wrong as the responsibility for allowing nasties was mine (on LGfL1)
        LGfL now provides (working with LogMeIn) a secure mechanism to enable its use without risk, and other secure methods for remote support.

        I do not believe that I have ever worked against the interests of the schools I have worked with.

        I agree that the schools need to build capability, but if they do this by getting in external companies, then the capability is not being built, they are just getting it from a different place and with a commercial motive.

        I bet the price comparison used by Rory and EXA was not like for like.

      2. You are making my point for me. As I understand what you are saying, you, as the provider, were talking to potential competitors, and as a result of those conversations they pulled out of competing. As an incumbent, virtual monopoly supplier RBCs have duty not only not to abuse that position, but to go out of their way to show they are not abusing that position.

        I have not suggested that schools should get their internal capability from external companies, quite the opposite. I do think that an issue here is that RBCs do see themselves as being the ‘right’ way to do this and anyone else wanting to enter the market is just interfering. Schools get LogMeIn when the RBC says they can have LogMeIn, etc. As with many system level solutions (and the point in the blog is that the RBC solution was one that was of its time) there are many occasions when the system need takes precedence over the needs of the individual school. For many schools this is not an optimal solution.

      3. Relying to a later post as there seems to be no ‘reply’ button!!!! Hope I am not being filtered out 🙂

        You said :’As I understand what you are saying, you, as the provider, were talking to potential competitors’

        Actually I was the RBC’s Customer, not a provider, as the structure of the grant had dictated. I had to take 70 schools along with me.
        I was only too happy to let the RBC’s competitor talk to the schools. They weren’t happy to compete.
        The LGfL probably would have preferred that I was not their customer, at times, as I was not, and never have been a pushover.
        It was my refusal to order copper circuits that started the LGfL’s move to fibre everywhere and Ethernet everywhere – in 2001 – compared to FTTC being the ‘latest’ offerings that are so much cheaper and nowhere near as capable.

      4. No, definitely no filtering going on here – the button disappeared for me too!

        Thank you for the clarification.

        I guess my general point is that had we known then what we know now (yes, I Know!) i doubt we would have adopted the same approach to connectivity as we did. Schools I speak to feel that connectivity is something that is out of their hands – “The RBC deal with that.” Meaning – “We can’t get involved and get what we want out of it.”

        And I do think that with a bit of foresight it was possible to see that there would be a market in connectivity that would enable the schools to be better connected than they are. Indeed, it is possible that the market would have developed earlier had schools been explicitly part of it. But hey ho, we are where we are.

  4. I am possibly one of those you castigate!
    LA IT Manager for 12 years, with 40+ years in IT and first intake of Computer Science students in the country.

    On blocking emails:

    Staff users of email systems filtered by LGfL can get a Spam Digest email, from which any email blocked as spam can be released – one click.
    All staff users of email systems filtered by LGfL can manage their own Allow / Reject list
    Regardless of the whether the user wants an email or not – spam filtering depends on where it comes from AND HOW it is sent, plus info from other ISPs. Should it be using ESP?
    My own LA used Messagelabs to send out emails, and when Messagelabs used a server with an unpublished IP address, the lot were blocked as spam.

    People who know about such things would know about such things and not (necessarily) blame LGfL

    1. Two things.

      The first is that I wonder how many schools will have someone in them that actually understands what you have said. You can treat that as a “he thinks people in schools are unintelligent” if you want, but in my experience reflects the lack of capability regarding organisation level IT – which was the main point of the post.

      The second is that I am hearing that many schools have not found the email referred to in their spam filters, which does tend to undermine the LGfL portion a little.

      Ever more so now, with less resource available in LAs, there needs to be a higher level of capability in schools than there is.

      1. My point is that EXA and Rory should understand it, and not make it look as though an email should not get blocked just because some one has ‘asked for it’.
        It is the way that it is sent or content that is the main cause of blocking.
        ESP is not available when a shed load of emails arrives in a way that does not conform to the established way of doing such things.
        I obviously cannot comment on what the LGfL might have done, but EXA and Rory should not be giving the impression that something should get through just because someone had asked for it
        .
        I do not think that people in schools are unintelligent (if that is what you have taken from my earlier comment) but it is not really their day job to know how things work outside their school, and if people who should know better are gilding the lily, then the school people can get an impression that may not be supportable.

        My manager once said that I was an expensive resource. I pointed out that I cost the LA a lot of money compared to the IT managers / network technicians in schools, but there was only one of me, so it was not very expensive. If each school had to pay for my experience and background, it would have cost a lot more overall – except that schools would not pay for it. Capability does need to grow – but not just relying on companies doing what LA / RBC’s ‘used to do’ – particularly if the companies are over-simplifying things.

  5. I have to agree whole heartedly with you here. My local primary was given a quote for a 2MB broadband from their local charity (xgFL) for £7,000 per year. I helped them move to a basic business broadband and used Diladele’s implementation of Squid and Dansguardian as a filter on an old server they had using Ubuntu. They still only have 2MB, but it is costing £200 or so a year and there is talk of fibre to post coming soon so the connection will only get quicker and they will have full control. Having said that, they need to go back to the county to get VPN for server maintenance which seems to be a step backwards, but hey ho.

    1. This is why its essential to have someone with relevant knowledge who’s only job is to be on the side of the school. Local grouping will help here.

      1. The ‘local grouping’ used to be called an ‘LEA’ and until Harnessing Technology Grant was stopped, I was the person advising schools:)
        I do not believe that any of the schools I worked with would accuse me of being partisan (I have been told off by the LA that I was taking the schools’ side on occasions – which was my job, to support schools) Also no one at the LGfL would say that I was uncritical (I had a reputation to keep up!)

        But if an LEA had to do a procurement for its schools, it would be in the land of OJEC, and published for any bidders (as the RBC’s had to do.)
        LGfL ran EU compliant procurements several times, and a significant number of bidders put in bids, which had to be adjudicated against criteria published in the Journal. Unhappy bidders could resort to legal challenge. (Calling in)

        Would the competitors arriving now meet those criteria? Did they bid before?

        A group of 25 schools (using EXA’s figures) would constitute a group that would need an OJEC.- and then there would be shedloads of bidders for the schools to deal with – again not something in their day jobs. They would also have to set themselves up as a corporate body/consortium to ensure that each school’s rights were protected.

        Not as simple as it seems.

        EXA would not be allowed to advise without other competitors doing a stuck pig impression.

        see http://www.whyfibre.lgfl.net for a comparison of what like for like means – I do not think that the figures used in the BBC item from EXA are comparing like for like – it sounds like a contended, asymmetric FTTC offering. Their web site says they ‘use Ofcoms standards for describing bandwidth’ in the area for schools . LGfL uses exactly what it says with no slow down due to distance, symmetric bandwidth and it is not contended right out to the Internet.

        The can tell me if I am wrong. (and why)

        They should correct it if I am not.

        I believe that the best comparison to use would be EXA’s leased line costs – which will still not be like for like – but would certainly narrow the gap and possibly close it completely.

      2. Having been involved in a number of OJEU bids I’d say they are not anything to be frightened of (dealing with bids is something that goes on all the time in schools now). Yes they need time and attention to detail but they are not rocket science. As for getting lots of bidders – well that’s the point of doing it, isn’t it, to get the best value.

        All I would say about what the RBCs offer is that if it is so great then why do most of the schools I speak to express dissatisfaction with the service they get? And that’s not something I generally hear from schools who have gone down an independent route.

        I would argue it’s high time the CMA had a good look at this area.

      3. I am impressed if you have been involved in several OJEC’s, as I was under the impression that you had worked in schools since 1976 (well, initially as a student) and most stuff in a school would not be high enough value for OJEC.

        I have never personally been involved in an OJEC in school level education, but have been involved in only three in my 45 years in IT.

        I cannot comment on what you have been told about the service schools get, but you do not say which RBC it relates to.

        I can comment that one head teacher (in another LA, not Harrow) – complaining about the delivery of LGfL2, told me and everyone else in hearing that she had been promised an LGfL2 service two years earlier (and a year before the contracts were in place to form LGfL2) and I had to point out that she might be being a bit ‘flexible’ with the views she was expressing.

      4. Which just goes to show that there can be a lack of understanding about what happens in schools and what school leaders are capable of. Secondary schools in particular are large orgs where virtually any building project they are involved with goes over the OJEU limits. Of course, if you want to ignore VFM you can always run the project off of the LA framework, but having done that once and being badly bitten by the VFM bug, never again.

        My experience in this area has led me to the point where I am more likely to believe that a head has been made promises, even if they were unrealistically given by people who shouldn’t be giving them. Thats the way some people work unfortunately.

  6. I recall when I was talking with a certain very large local government agency who used extensive connectivity, they told me about their connectivity deal. They were paying about four times average retail price for a quarter the bandwidth because the long term contract said so. There was no out, no incentive to improve and no tracking of the market. I was amazed when I saw how much they were paying and they knew they were getting screwed, but the procurement framework that was supposed to be there to protect them was strangling them.

    1. I think this is a big problem – “We did it according to the framework, so at the very least our backsides are covered”. There seems to be a (false) assumption that just by following the procurement process VFM will automatically follow.

  7. Good advice! For very small schools I would also add to speak to lots of providers – the difference in costs is breahtaking as is the way in which they provide support. If you don’t have an expert at school you need someone who can help!

    1. This is why it is perhaps better for smaller schools to group together to get some economies of scale here.

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