With the publication of the DfE’s ‘Meeting digital and technology standards in schools and colleges’ (23 March 2022), a high-quality, stable, secure IT infrastructure moves from the ‘nice-to-have’ to the ‘necessary’ list for leadership and governance teams.
Many schools will already meet or exceed these standards – and arguably, for these, the focus may turn to whether they’re making best use of this IT-backbone to enhance teaching and learning.
For other, often smaller schools – particularly those in remote areas – is this expectation going to be difficult to meet given the logistical and financial challenges they might face?
The advantages to both teaching and administration in schools of having fast, reliable internet connectivity aren’t in doubt, particularly as our reliance on cloud-based ecosystems and apps continues to grow.
The DfE’s newest standards set out a requirement for a core infrastructure which will allow schools to take full advantage of the range of technology resources available.
If your school continues to struggle for broadband capacity or suffers from Wi-Fi blackspots, then, like it or not, these standards probably provide the push needed to prioritise investment in infrastructure.
The benefits to be gained from having improved digital access in schools can’t be underestimated. Having confidence that the technology you’ve planned to use in the lesson won’t let you down, that you won’t freeze on a video presentation, or that your finance systems will interact smoothly with third-party banking software are all important factors in staff wellbeing and the overall effectiveness of your school.
There are so many more chances to develop learning opportunities, create economical workflows for staff and better communicate with parents and carers if your core infrastructure is effective.
Enabling improved accessibility through appropriate technologies for learners and staff with SEND can become much easier. A whole year group logging on to devices simultaneously can be achieved in seconds without loss of data for anyone else. Live streaming lessons to allow you to reach absent pupils or enable split-site classes can be achieved effortlessly.
These, and much more besides, are all made more possible with reliable internet and Wi-Fi.
Setting the standard
Currently, four sets of standards have been outlined, with more to follow in the coming months. Briefly, they cover broadband internet, network switching, network cabling and wireless networking – along with all the security, management and performance expectations associated with these technologies.
If these terms make you glaze over, that’s okay; this isn’t a project for a school leader to take on in isolation. As with any whole-school development project, it should be approached as part of a bigger picture, with a willing, knowledgeable team around you and specialists involved from the outset.
The minimum technical specifications are clearly set out, and you can expect your IT provider to audit your systems and give you a clear report as to whether you are currently meeting these or not, and an action plan of any necessary remedial action.
Schools are each already on their own digital transition path. Start point, intended destination, budget, staffing capacity and IT confidence are some of the many factors influencing the speed at which they can embrace technologies and develop their use for students.
The promise of high-speed internet to schools across the country by 2025 is encouraging but places constraints on some areas until then. In the short term at least, we may experience a widening of the digital divide between schools as they address these standards at different rates.
Each of the standards comes with a section entitled, ‘When to meet the standards’. These appear to range from as soon as you can (Broadband internet standards) to when you need to upgrade an underperforming or unsupported solution (Wireless network standard).
Given the lack of specifics, let’s assume that all schools find the time, capacity, finances and IT support services to meet the standards set out by the DfE in the next few years. Bringing equity of access to infrastructure is one thing, but will this translate to similar experiences of technology for all students?
Time and money must also be found to allow research into, and procurement of, hardware and software solutions that capitalise on the infrastructure, along, of course, with the staff development needed for each new technology if they’re to have maximum impact on outcomes.
As schools comply with the standards, will it be enough to benefit students whose homes remain in digital poverty? What can you do as part of your school’s digital strategy to address the disparity amongst students who lack suitable digital access at home?
The cost of progress
Financing a project to meet these standards will, for some, be significant. The government is dovetailing this with the ‘levelling up’ agenda, and it’s suggested that some form of funding will be available to schools in the 55 education investment areas – though this may still leave some with a large pot of money to find.
The cost to be borne goes beyond the purchasing of hardware and signing of broadband contracts. The leadership and IT time to scope, agree and implement the solutions, and, in the coming years, the maintenance and renewal costs, should all be factored in to avoid any unwanted financial surprises.
For schools with outdated infrastructure or those without much at all, the investment costs will be outweighed by the benefits it brings.
One of the best ways to understand the options available to you is to collaborate with other schools – to learn from their experience and seek recommendations to help you make informed purchasing decisions and avoid costly mistakes.
While announcing the introduction of these standards at BETT, Nadhim Zahawi made mention of the possibility of changes to assessment practices in the future.
As school leaders, if your core IT infrastructure is ready to meet the demands of digital assessment, that’s one thing you can tick off your ‘to do’ list right now.
There’s uncertainty around whether the standards will, in time, become tied up as part of a judgement on the quality of an establishment’s provision.
For now, though, let’s consider this the catalyst to get the less exciting, less obvious side of schools’ IT to the standards that you and the students can benefit from – an opportunity for nationwide equity of connectivity.
5 steps to meeting the standards
- First, take a look at the DfE’s publication to become familiar with the expectations.
- Next, work with your IT support team to identify whether your infrastructure meets the standards. Pre-empt the inclusion of cybersecurity standards and include these in your review. If you fall short, identify all areas for improvement and get costs for these.
- Now, identify the project as a priority within your development plans: What positive impact to other areas of your school could enhanced digital connectivity bring? How does it sit within your procurement planning cycle? Bear in mind that upgrades and maintenance costs will be ongoing.
- If you haven’t already, develop a digital strategy with the support of your IT supplier to ensure that the investment in infrastructure is maximised in terms of benefits to teaching, learning and administration in your school.
In the coming months, organisations and schools will be offering support on how to meet these standards, so reach out and benefit from their experience – it may save you time and money in the long run!
Jo Roberts is senior development manager at Platform 365 (platform365.co.uk), which provides expert IT support for schools.