Schools tied in to ICT contracts as part of their Building Schools for the Future (BSF) makeovers now must find extra cash for consultants to get them out of their poor value deals, an investigation by Schools Week has found.
A majority of schools that were part of the government’s £55 billion BSF school rebuilding programme were forced to outsource their information communications technology (ICT) to a private company as part of the deal.
But Schools Week has learned many contracts are poor value for money – with some suppliers over-charging for new equipment by tens of thousands of pounds.
The findings follow a series of investigations by Schools Week into the way cash-strapped schools are being pushed into financial ruin by soaring debts owed to private firms. Mark Orchison, managing director of technology specialists 9ine Consulting, told Schools Week: “Inherently, schools do not have the in-house legal experience to understand their position and are, in some cases, being held to ransom to extend ICT contracts that are poor value and give very bad service.”
The ICT contracts can run for up to 10 years – although schools had the option to leave after five years – and were often labelled as “one-size fits all”.
Ormiston Academies Trust has two schools – Ormiston Horizon Academy and Ormiston Sir Stanley Matthews Academy – that pay nearly £300 per pupil under the contracts.
The trust said it could slash the costs by nearly half by providing its own IT services.
Stephen Moss, strategic director for ICT at Partnership for Schools, which was responsible for helping deliver the investment in schools, said: “The hope was that schools would feel the managed service was offering them good value. And they would be left to get on with the teaching and learning.”
He said schools had received around £1,500 per pupil for new computers as part of the government’s investment, which he described as a “transformative amount of money”.
He added: “A lot of schools ended up with a phenomenal amount of kit, but at the end of the five years had a lot of old kit coming to the end of its life. And the government won’t give them more money.”
He said schools have also struggled to get best use of the contracts because of a lack of available advice following cuts in local authority legal staff.
Schools who do choose to leave the contracts no longer have the capacity to manage their ICT infrastructure, he added, as ICT staff were either axed or transferred to the private company that won the contracts.
Malcolm Trobe (pictured), deputy general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders, said: “When these contracts were being set up in the first place we tried to make it absolutely clear that, particularly in the ICT system, there were major concerns about the nature of the contract, the length of them, and the potential overarching costs.”
But Bob Harrison, who helped some of the private firms put together their bids and is an adviser to electronics giant Toshiba, said: “It’s not as simple as ‘schools are being ripped off’.”
He said many firms had had to put up £2 million just to participate in the tendering process – and needed to be prepared to not get it back.
“Their incentive for doing that was that they would make the money back over 10 years.”
The Department for Education said that schools have been given a range of guidance on how to get the best value from contracts.
“Schools are free to work together to get best value on contracts and we know many academies and academy chains already do so.”