From DIY to MSP

  • 1st July 2024

Paul Sypko provides advice about making informed technical support choices in education


It seems almost too much a statement of the obvious to say that schools are demanding users of technology. However, it wasn’t always that way. Many of the people reading this article will remember the days of a BBC Micro being wheeled out once a week and pupils eagerly scrambling over each other to take turns at “using the computer”. Or, going a little less far back in time, they may have memories of their (somewhat unappreciative) classmates making jokes about the quality of the outdated equipment in the school’s ‘computer room’. Occasionally, one might have encountered some of the more tech-savvy and privileged pupils (who had access to ‘professional’ computing equipment at home) using a word processing package to draft an essay before handing their teacher a printed copy instead of a handwritten version. This sort of school IT environment wasn’t really all that long ago – certainly it was true of the early ‘90s.

How times change

Today’s classrooms are unrecognisable from their predecessors, with interactive whiteboards, tablets, educational apps and even high-end computing tools such as Geographic Information Systems (for example, within a geography department) having become commonplace tools for teaching and learning. The Covid-19 pandemic further accelerated the adoption of digital technologies in education, prompting a widespread shift to remote and hybrid learning models. Looking to the future, emerging technologies such as artificial intelligence, virtual reality and augmented reality hold the potential to revolutionise education, offering immersive and interactive learning experiences.

However, the use of technology in a school environment goes much deeper than that. Schools have always had a huge administrative workload to support the classroom activities. Whether it’s student records management, staff management, financial management, timetabling and scheduling, facilities management, communication and correspondence, organising school events, admissions and student services, or ensuring compliance with policies and regulations set by educational authorities – the list is long, and the tasks are complex. Or, to put it another way, it’s prime ground for IT systems to be used to their full potential and to deliver tangible, meaningful benefit.

It’s no surprise therefore that the market for technology in the education sector is a big one – whether it’s to enhance the learning experience or to streamline administrative processes. Estimates and definitions vary, but reputable sources claim that UK schools spend an estimated £1.5 billion on IT products and services annually. Far from the days of IT being a novelty (or even an overcomplicated distraction), schools can rightfully now claim to be ‘power users’ of technology.

The challenge of complexity

The challenge with all this technology that schools now use is that there are so many different areas to manage – each of which are often specialised professional disciplines in their own right. Somehow, a school that provides effective IT systems to its staff and students (not to mention indirectly to parents/carers through portals, apps and the like) has to manage:

  • A large portfolio of software solutions and apps – for both education and administrative needs.
  • The provision of technical support to hundreds or thousands of users.
  • Efficient delivery of new IT projects, in an environment where there’s little tolerance for budget over-runs.
  • The provision of a robust technical infrastructure – including networks, servers, Wi-Fi access points, cabling and devices spread across a large physical site.
  • Security controls for safeguarding staff and pupils, as well as to protect systems from viruses, malware and cyber threats. This includes firewalls, antivirus software, encryption, user authentication, and data backup systems.
  • Maintenance of end-user equipment – often encompassing hundreds or thousands of devices (with many schools expecting pupils to use laptops as an integral part of their education).
  • Procurement, budgeting, negotiating contracts with suppliers, and ensuring value for money.
  • Policies and compliance – for example, in relation to data protection and acceptable use.
  • In many cases, curating and managing digital learning resources such as e-books, multimedia content, educational apps, and online courses to support teaching and learning activities.
  • Promoting digital literacy skills among students, teachers and staff through training, workshops and education.

This requires a vast array of skills and specialisms; while there are undoubtedly some talented individuals who can turn their hand to more or less anything they try, simply keeping up with the latest practices and trends would be an overwhelming task in its own right, if spread across all of these areas.

Get professional about IT

Quite rightly, people now expect more from the school’s IT department than what a small team of talented individuals can typically provide. They expect professionalism – deep, specialist knowledge; access to people who are well-versed in whatever quirky problem or issue they might have at that moment in time; highly responsive around-the-clock support; and systems that work.

A problem that a school has is that it typically cannot justify having a huge IT team that covers everything imaginable, and to a high standard as well. The ‘do it yourself’ approach of yesteryear, where a small but capable IT team might have done everything from selecting and implementing a new school management information system, through to cabling a new Wi-Fi access point into a classroom, is no longer realistic – the skills needed to do that effectively are now simply far too specialised.

So, what’s the solution? Some schools might pool their resources; this might be more viable in some sectors than others (for example, a huge multi-academy trust may be able to do it, but a smaller independent school may not have the option). Others might just spend more on having a bigger IT team. However, even then, the capacity and capabilities of the IT function will be limited.

Enter the MSP

Managed Service Providers (MSPs) can provide a depth and breadth of technical capabilities that far exceed what is possible in-house. Effectively, they act as an external service provider – taking on responsibility for defined aspects of the school’s IT provision. As the name suggests, they are used to manage certain aspects of the IT service.

The ‘certain aspects’ point is important here. Some schools may opt to enlist a specialist provider for specific tasks, such as managing the network, which might include maintaining servers, physical infrastructure, security, and backup solutions/resilience measures. Others might go for a more fully outsourced arrangement – asking the provider to provide more or less everything that’s needed to deliver an effective IT service to users, from service desk (technical support and handling user requests) through to strategic planning and even management of other suppliers (for example, providers of specialist software applications). Others might use the MSP as an ‘overflow’ for an in-house IT team or to complement or bolster its skills and capacity, handling issues that it either doesn’t have the time to do itself (for example, occasional projects such as network upgrades) or the necessary skills (for example, cybersecurity audits).

Staying accountable

While the idea of calling on the services of an MSP may be appealing in many ways, there are of course cost considerations (although they may not be as expensive when compared to an in-house function as one might expect), as well as issues related to ensuring that the service meets your school’s needs and expectations. Some MSPs are able to provide a more comprehensive service than others, some are more or less expensive than others, and some perhaps have a better reputation than others in the areas that might matter to you. As such, it’s important to review resourcing and capability options (ranging from fully in-house, through to hybrid and more outsourced models), design the service/IT operating model that works best for your school, and then choose the MSP (and other technology partners) carefully.

Whichever model you might decide works best for your school, the one area that it’s invariably not possible to buy from an external provider is the function of being the customer itself. There will always need to be at least someone in the school who remains accountable for managing external suppliers (including MSPs). That alone can be a full-time job – making sure that the MSP continues to provide value for money and delivers a service closely aligned with the needs of your school.


Paul Sypko is a partner at technology management consultants Adapta Consulting.

Paul Sypko

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