Are Managed Service Providers the future in Edu-IT?

Published by Matt Setchell on

When I started working in Education – BSF (Building Schools for the Future) was a ‘threat’ to the internal IT team. The thought at the time (and for many the reality) was that these big companies would come in, and run the IT in schools as an externally provided service, set against a rigid contract. I remember my boss at the time when doing a school disco – wanted to make clear to leadership that they wouldn’t get this from an outsourced, managed service.

Fast forward some 13 years, and I now run the largest IT Support provider for Education in Worcestershire, and I am constantly fighting the bad image of MSPs in my mind, let alone the schools I support.

We provide fully managed solutions, we provide a core service that is to support schools with existing IT (with strategic advice and advanced support). It is fair to say, that we often follow internal staff leaving, or poor MSPs.

Like anything, there are good and bad examples of implementation of managed services throughout Education, not just in IT. These experiences will of course taint the view, whatever the sector, of SBMs, Leadership Teams and IT professionals within the schools themselves.

There is a clear split when it comes to school sizes, and even the phases already on this, with many first or primary schools already using a managed service, either LEA or external – whereas many secondaries have dedicated teams. Trusts too maybe forming a team – this post has, I hope, something for all.

So, are managed service providers the future for education IT?

What is a managed service provider?

Let’s start simple – what exactly is a managed service provider (MSP)? The answer is as simple as the question, it is an external company providing services against an SLA. In Edu-IT this consists of regular visits and/or access to a helpdesk to provide the IT support.

Why would you outsource to an external company?

There are lots of reasons, the main being cost, and the service delivery. A dedicated team of professionals focused on providing the best IT support – is, in my opinion, the best solution for schools, and for Edu-IT pros.

For the schools, they don’t have to deal with HR, employee costs and management, cover, CPD. They benefit from not risking one person walking away with all the IT knowledge in many cases. They also benefit from access to a larger, specialised team that will have internal specialists in key areas and a better ability to respond to crises as they will have specific terms set in a contract. They will also benefit from shared knowledge garnered from multiple schools. There is sometimes, but not always, a cost-saving for the school. Sometimes this is obvious, other times less so.

The biggest reason, schools tell me is that they are much easier to hold to account then employing your own team. An SLA clearly defines what the service delivery entails and the expectations. The MSP can help to demystify what an IT team do.

As an aside, I believe that training and projects are key to supporting a school effectively, that’s why Lourdes IT include these within an SLA.

Why wouldn’t you outsource to an MSP?

The simple answer here is – people (and therein lies schools biggest issues with directly employing people) – if you have a good IT professional in your school, your internal provision will be the best. You will trust your IT team, and what they tell you, and they will understand their role in helping the entire school community reach their goals. They are invested in your school and your outcomes above all else.

There are some incredibly talented individuals and teams working in IT in schools. But, as I have mentioned previously, recruitment and retainment are at an all-time low. Schools cannot match the private sector for salaries, and the private sector value the expertise many have in working what is typically a large-scale corporate network in a school or trust that will have more devices, more users, more software most companies – making Edu-IT staff very desirable.

What is the wider view on MSPs?

I asked out on Twitter tonight briefly for people’s views on MSPs in Education. It’s fair to say, there was a theme in the responses. MSPs have to bridge the gap of that personal relationship, knowledge, and frankly, dedication – to the school that directly employed staff would have.

I also had a couple of DMs from techies that felt MSPs limited their ability to make that impact, and would not enable career progression for them because they were not interested in moving schools forwards.

Many schools and onsite IT staff also have had years battling faceless LEAs, who provided a central service that is now either being wound down or commercialised. These services are often not flexible, and hold back school development due to funding and red tape. Often, schools have an aspiring DHT or middle manager in charge of their IT, who – in frustration – duplicate provision to find something that works for them – and IT staff in schools are often held back in developments to their detriment because of these services.

So are MSPs the future?

Yes. Undoubtedly in my view. But, I would add a caveat – larger-scale internal trust teams can also deliver the same benefits if set up and managed right.

You might think I am biased about this – I would at this point make clear that I don’t actually work for an MSP. I work for a Multi Academy Company, which operates Lourdes IT. So, I don’t have to make a profit. I have to deliver services that benefit my MAC, and this isn’t always financially – it’s being able to recruit a higher level of staff, to implement solutions and services (like broadband, MIS accredited support, an expensive helpdesk (FreshDesks), to be able to have dedicated staff to answer the help desk phones, longer opening hours, project team, IT Operations Manager and… me)

So working in the public sector, I know we can’t pay as much as others delivering this service. I also know we are limited in the scope of what we do, as we cannot make a profit.

And – that means we are fully focused on what our schools need, what we can do for them, and how we can improve their experience around IT. Very few providers can, hand on heart, say that is what drives them (but there are some, for sure)

It is an incredible challenge to support multiple schools. I report to 50+ SLTs. I have 50+ networks to manage, to develop. Do you lose some of that intimacy with having 1st lines on-site instead of a network manager? Yes. Does it sometimes appear that decisions are not taken in the best interest of the school? Yes. Is it hard to maintain development, skills, and everything else each school needs at scale? Yes.

Is it impossible? No. (I would like to think!)

For a start – I may report to 50 SLTs, but I have staff beneath me who work closely with schools before it gets to me, these are people they know, and work with regularly, and include both technical and non-technical.

Schools may lose the intimacy, but this is actually what is sometimes needed, fresh eyes, experiences across a range of establishments, and techies trained in customer service to deliver a service, that is monitored and accountable to the school.

Many schools value having a team providing advice to help them make the decisions because it should never be the IT team making decisions without the input and scrutiny of others. Where decisions are not popular, schools can opt-out, we cannot force them to do anything, but we can provide an experience of how others have dealt with situations.

We can also implement change faster and more effectively, as a result of that experience and skill levels. We see, and evaluate what goes well, so where it is harder to keep up with fast-moving developments over 50 schools, actually – even at our baseline the networks implemented with our experience work well, because they are tried and tested. We also develop the skills and systems to overcome this hurdle. Last year we rebuilt 10 networks – for some techies that is a once in a career thing.

What about those staff working in schools now?

Let me be clear, I am a techie employed by a school effectively. So I know how it may feel to sit here and read this and perhaps be worried about the future. But – it is actually the right move for you going forward to join a team of like-minded geeks. To have that ability to specialise and a career progression route you would never have had. To be supported in your role, and to have a development route that doesn’t stop at network manager.

If techies in our team had not been part of our team, they wouldn’t be able to manage and setup Intune from scratch, they wouldn’t be accredited in multiple MIS, they wouldn’t get regular inhouse CPD, they wouldn’t have a line manager who is focused on the delivery of IT (well, they might to an NM who is already swamped as they are covering multiple roles)

Can Central Trust teams be as effective as an MSP?

In terms of the creation of in-house central teams, something that I have experience of leading for several trusts – it can be the right move for sure – and the right team is key. A few things need to be considered though.

The first question I ask trusts is “Why reinvent the wheel if what you have is not working currently?” Are you just giving the most senior tech the job to run IT for your trust? Is that the right move? Is leading IT development just a technical job?

If you are providing a centralised function, is it centralised? Or are you just putting all the IT people in one team, and have one big person telling them what to do? It won’t work. Teams work, teams with sub-teams (helpdesk, projects, onsite) – and these can need more staff in the medium term as you turn the schools around from that onsite presence to central support, which is cheaper in the long run and comes with all the above benefits.

Leading teams, and bridging the gap from technical to teaching and learning is not something anyone can just pick up and do. These days, my job is more about the impact and service delivery than technical but, that technical, that ability to translate from one to the other is crucial for my role. Even when employing 1st lines I will go for customer service skills with no technical ability over someone who can take apart a PC (which we just don’t do anymore) – so as I say, choosing the right team is key.

Bottom line

If you have got this far, well done! I quite often get my head cleared enough to write a blog when not at work, and I haven’t been at work this week. It’s always a good question to ask – why am I doing things the way I am?

I honestly believe that specialised IT teams and not individuals are what is needed moving forward, to develop the team members to meet the needs and allow schools to have their needs met. I don’t think individuals or small teams are supported enough inside individual schools to be able to do what they do as well as they could with the right support and environment.

If you feel differently, I’d like to hear – tweet me @msetchell

Categories: Blog