Published by Matt Setchell on

I always enjoy reading the years in review for those people I follow online. I like the mix of professional and personal; and to see how they have got on – so I thought I would be unique, like them, and post mine.

A lot of these blogs reviewing the past year will talk about the pandemic, or, about everyone else is talking about the pandemic. This is me talking about the pandemic but I’ve tried to break it out a bit. Because I am sure we are all sick of it.

Let’s go back to January 2020 – I went into 2020 having lost the guy who I have had by my side throughout a lot of the growth of Lourdes IT. Andy, my Technical Manager had left pre Christmas to take on a career in the police, and who can blame him – more money, less hours.

At the same time, another long standing team member, James had been stolen by another school we had done some work at. He had really impressed them (because he was damn good) and off he went.

So, I entered 2020 with slight trepidation. We had recruited well, and employed several second line technicians – but even with the best of the best – you cannot just sit down at a desk and know the schools we support, the characters we support – and our ethos etc.

I also knew that 2020 was the year where we had to make some serious changes to catch up with ourselves following our strong growth in Q4 2019, and that continued into and throughout 2020.

Taking on quite a few larger schools this year, and tail end of 2019, and the loss of the old guard who knew LIT inside out – presented a challenge. We had lost staff due to the pressure of growth (amongst other things) and I didn’t want that to happen again.

So in the first few months of 2020, I sat down and worked out processes. Easy systems for our team to follow, and to grow with us. Automating as much as I could for the team, and for me.

This proved really positive, giving oversight as well as clarity for all involved. I used SharePoint and Power Automate to achieve it – and all our HR, planning and management systems are now run from our SharePoint page, anywhere on any device.

As we entered into to Spring 2, our team continued to grow, either from new roles or replacing leavers (something I have quickly learnt in my role is that people come and go. And that is just how it is.)

Infact, when I look back at the end of the year, we have more new people employed in the last year in the team, then we do those that were here before. It’s not a bad thing at all – the fresh blood has done us good – but it has re-enforced the importance of documentation and these processes – as well as a solid onboarding process.

So with this in mind, and the teams continued growth I took the opportunity to reshape the team, twice. My original idea to keep people within their tiered support and fit teams around them failed. We needed more experienced 2nd line techs out on the road, and on the helpdesk – so branding them all as the technical team and keeping them in the office wasn’t working. I am proud that I made a swift change, and that things are now really are better and clearer for all.

I decided to create 3 teams, Help Desk, Projects and Onsite. All with different levels of staffing. I also decided to create a senior team internally to take some of the pressure from myself. These changes have worked really well, allowing us to appoint people with the right skills to the right role, rather then trying to fit the roles we needed around the individuals we have.

So, by Summer 1, as we just entered lock-down – the team was looking very different, the setup very different and our support delivery was going through changes.

I will talk about the changes in the way we provide our support later, but up to this point we were doing well on the surface – but I could start to see gaps in our support delivery. I could see us becoming to re-active, and part of the reason for teams, and teams leaders was to allow a more direct oversight of performance and to give team members responsibility for that. It was great to see team leaders get stuck in, and after the return to the office this has been even more apparent and we have seen some fantastic results of tighter oversight and more support for team members.

Additionally since our return in September we have really honed in on specific KPIs to improve on. This has been lead by the senior team but supported by all, with PowerBI dashboards, regular feedback and meetings – and these core KPIs have rapidly improved.

In terms of projects this year, it has been our busiest ever. Even if you take Covid out of the picture – it was a lot to ask a new team achieve. Which they did, of course and smashed it.

We rebuilt 9 networks in the summer holiday alone, 9 rebuilds where we wiped the existing infrastructure and either replaced it or reconfigured it with a whole new domain and servers. We did this across primaries and secondaries – and within 2 trusts we massively reduced the onsite systems at schools, allowing them to fully benefit from the cloud. This includes all storage being in the cloud (using IamCloud) to map drives and the introduction of Intune to manage devices (more on that when I get to the pandemic).

Of course doing 9 projects meant a lot to support on our return in September, and going forward we will be, through the new projects team – keeping the September support in our mind when agreeing projects with customers.

These changes are huge for support. And the ever changing and developing nature of cloud based services means we have to keep on the ball – no more can we simply rely on leaving a system that works to work – because the speed at which Microsoft changes requirements and adds features is breakneck. With variable outcomes.

However we should not shy away from changes and moving forward – for too long people have, and whilst moving forward has risks, so does staying where you are.

The Pandemic

It’s hard to talk about the achievements and challenges this year without mentioning the pandemic. For IT, it’s been nothing short of transformational. Whether with what we have achieved, or on the understanding of what we do – or both.

Before the pandemic, most school’s were struggling with making IT work for them. Years of stupid VLEs and mis-sold solutions had left trust in IT teams at all time low, combined with the lack of finance and investment many many schools were failing their staff and students.

Not all, of course – and certainly we were starting to see some schools start to build on their robust foundations we had put in, and start to slowly, very slowly, embrace some elements of cloud.

And then Covid struck. And school’s nationwide panicked. Their teams had not been supported or developed to move to cloud, and within days we were told to provide home learning solutions, on systems that could not handle it.

I have seen and worked with schools that were able to simply switch to working at home, because they embraced cloud fully, to those that were able to make a swifter transition because they had embraced the idea and had started to use it, some who listened to us and were able to use Cloud because we had been slowly implementing it pro-actively, and some schools who simply resisted Cloud and any change from their normality.

I am not laying any blame around, but it has been clear to me for a while: a lot of schools have left their IT teams to just keep things going with the minimum of investment in them, or solutions. Teams or individuals have become simply fed up of taking ideas to management. Either because of funding limitations, or because they are not part of leadership and therefore the decisions are not made by them. Far to often, they are still made by your newly promoted Assistant or Deputy head, that wants to impress – who starts and does not finish, or who starts and finishes and has no idea how to move it forward once implemented.

Teams being fed up of this, has led to them being underappreciated, and of course under motivated. Creating a horrendous situation for the pandemic to strike in terms of enabling remote working.

Still, I am worried about what some have implemented. How that will work going forward. Because the quickest solutions are not the easiest or the best long term. Especially given that nobody has an idea what the long term will look right now. Far too many schools are interested in 3 or 5 year plans. I have achieved 5 year plans in 5 months this year. Have a plan – it’s really important – but you must be prepared to adapt and adjust – even the biggest elements. Those schools with no Digital Strategy were the first to struggle, the first to panic. And that leads to poor decisions, that will come back to haunt.

So what did we do in the Pandemic?

I am going to simply comment on our MAC now, not customers. We replicated and adapted a lot of this where needed (another benefit of having a MSP who support multiple schools)

Well, we made some decisions just before to move more to cloud as part of our digital strategy, which made things much easier. We knew where we wanted to go, we picked the platform and the solutions – so we had to accelerate our plans to get there, and that of adoption.

We quickly migrated our 5 tenancies to one. Not without hitches (Teams Edu had no migration path it turned out) but we did it, and it has made a huge difference across our MAC. Clarity for end users on what tools we have and easier to support.

It also allowed us to use Intune. Intune, the cloud MDM solution built into Endpoint Manager in O365 has been this years life saver. We have deployed in excess of 1500 devices by it, new and old – all allowing our users to access anywhere, anytime, anything. We have not only deployed devices to staff and students, but even have developed a parent contribution scheme which has enabled even more to benefit from access to a device at home.

We can convert a device, and be confident it is fully managed, safe and secure in about 20 minutes. And we can do it anywhere. And manage it from anywhere.

Providing support in a pandemic

This might shock you to learn, but I have never been in a pandemic before, to my knowledge. So, working out how to support 40+ schools (somewhere in the region of 15-20k potential users) who are working from home was quite a challenge.

Originally I wanted to keep the team in the office, with so many new people, it was the best way to support everyone – but it quickly proved to the case that working from home was the safest.

That was easy for us, because I had always planned for that. If our internet went down, we had to be able to work off 4G or go to another school. So everything could be picked up and moved – phones, devices and access to everything was via our helpdesk or 365, we already used Teams to communicate because our team were always out and about – so it was easy. We opened up the phone lines to parents and students, as well as staff and we successfully provided support during the transitions.

Through our bulk buying power and knowledge we also sourced and delivered laptops before shortages to enable remote teaching. Staff devices have been cut in recent years for the budget with the expectation on staff to provide their own device from home snd remote in – but remote is not designed to handle entire schools working remotely at the same time.

As soon as schools returned, we did. We needed to provide that onsite support. What I am really proud of, however is that so far – we have had no cases. That’s down to the team.

We limited access to classrooms and shared areas to 10/15 minutes after a couple of isolations due to exposure – and we haven’t had anyone off needing to isolate since.

We returned again, to support our users better but also our team, as well as planning and carrying out summer works.

In September, we had our busiest month ever with over 8,000 tickets submitted in Autumn 1. That’s insane, and pushed up over 100,000 tickets in December.

However, it was pleasing to see that we started to make real progress with again raising the bar with our support, longer opening hours and more fresh faces have made a real impact – with our new structure we have been able to provide more specific results from our recruitment.

Towards the end of the year, we have once again continued to expand, we already have several schools signed up for April and our MAC is expanding with the first additional school joining us on January 1st.

The future

The Edu-IT support environment continues to develop and change quickly, and with additional lockdowns almost inevitable for the first 6 months of 2021, and leadership teams understanding the need for IT provision more then ever – we will continue, in my opinion to see schools grapple with the long term direction for their IT strategies.

Many will now have devices (either their own, or the few the DFE got out) and most will have started to adopt an online platform – but there is so much more for schools to grasp.

Simply using cloud platforms ad-hoc will not enable the benefits – cloud platforms need to be fully embedded into schools. And this is where there continues, in my opinion to be a big difference here between Google and Microsoft platforms – that wider integration with existing tech – but that is a blog for the future.

What I would say though, to any senior leaders reading is: don’t do it alone. You don’t need that hassle. IT is a specialist area. You might be an expert reader – but you are not an IT expert.

Many schools will now need to play catch up to ensure systems are managed, are safe, that they have a plan to adopt and integrate the technology. Schools now need to adapt with more devices, less onsite servers and more use of technology in more lessons, and how to support that.