UTC Oxfordshire is a mixed University Technical College based in the heart of the county. Opened in 2015 with state-of-the-art facilities, the school currently caters to 250 students aged between 14 and 18.
The UTC are focussed on empowering their students to attain the qualifications and experience that future employers will demand by combining core academic subjects with the opportunity to gain practical experience in specialist areas.
Owain Johns, Principal at UTC Oxfordshire, is responsible for ensuring that students make the best of the learning opportunities the school provides. Over the next three years, he will oversee the growth of the school’s intake from 250 up to 600 students at capacity.
UTC Oxfordshire selected RM Education in May 2015 to provide IT support and help shape their ICT strategy. Here, Owain discusses the benefits of finding the right model to support the school’s objectives.
When Owain and his team sat down to plan their ICT provision, they identified three key challenges - the most fundamental of which was finding a flexible, scalable solution that would grow with them as they work towards their objectives.
“Our growth plans are ambitious over the next three years, so for us it’s essential that we have the right ICT support in place at each phase of that journey – support that can be scaled up whenever it’s required,” says Owain.
“And at the forefront of this provision had to be technology that works, without the kind of disruptions that slow down teaching and learning. We’ve all worked in schools where the technology hasn’t worked and there is nothing more frustrating for our staff and students.”
The second challenge was ensuring the best value for money in a climate of tightening budgets, as well as looking at areas where the UTC could make long-term cost-savings that would help to facilitate a sustainable growth model.
“Every school faces the challenge of making the most of their limited budgets, and as school leaders, it’s our job to ensure that every student gets the best opportunities – for me, that’s about making our ICT budget go as far possible and have a tangible and positive impact on students’ learning and progress,” says Owain.
As part of this challenge, Owain and his team looked at their existing ICT provision to see where and how they could achieve better value for money.
“When we first had the blueprint for the UTC, there was a temptation to have said: ‘Let’s do things that we've always done in schools', but when we looked at our budget we knew the challenge had to be approached from an entirely new angle.
“So the question we asked ourselves was: ‘Do we actually need a network manager on site? Is it essential that we have cover five days a week, or could we outsource this provision and have remote access and support, backed up with intermediate support as and when it's needed?’ For us, the answer was a partnership approach with an education IT specialist who could give us flexible support when required.”
The final challenge was to ensure their ICT moved with the times as new technologies develop, particularly in an age where students increasingly expect to learn in the same way they live and use the technologies they’re most familiar with.
“Our students have grown up around technology; we have a 3D printing suite here at the UTC, where students are manufacturing components and prototypes for their engineering projects, and if there’s something they don’t know, they’ll simply watch a YouTube clip or Google the instructions,” says Owain.
“This is a plug-and-play generation with tremendous confidence in technology, to the extent where our students often show teachers how to do things. Therefore, if we as a school are using an ICT model based on 10-15 years ago, their learning and progress will be hampered. We’ve got to embrace that and work with them – we don’t want yesterday’s technology in such a rapidly evolving marketplace.”
Anytime-anywhere learning is a key part of students learning in the same way they live, so UTC Oxfordshire also needed to explore technologies that would enable this – such as cloud-based software that students could access easily both in and out of the classroom.
The solutions required for each of these three challenges – scalability, value for money and future-proofed technologies - would be critical factors in the success and long-term growth of the school.
After a carefully-considered procurement process, UTC Oxfordshire chose to partner with RM Education to access a flexible ICT support service that meets the needs of their teachers and learners, while embracing the cost savings, service benefits and best practice that partnership working provides.
One of the key drivers in their selection process was finding a solution which fostered a partnership approach, and Owain found this in RM’s Flex solution, which provides remote, on-site and managed IT services to schools of all sizes.
“Ultimately, the modern school is effectively recreating the business environment, so building partnerships which facilitate collaboration and cooperation is an essential part of that. For us, it was about forging a strong relationship with a close partner who understood all our challenges and was uniquely placed to address them,” says Owain.
“From the start, RM provided us with unbiased evidence and relevant expertise to enable us to make an informed decision about the type and volume of IT support we needed; it was a collaborative process and we weren't pushed down a particular path. We came to a decision that we were comfortable with and we’re confident this support will grow with us.
Owain and his team work extensively with their Relationship Manager at RM, while their Regional Manager also comes in regularly to help them identify patterns and trends and where they need to scale, as well as pinpointing where future issues may arise.
Remote IT support – where the majority of technical issues can be fixed off-site by RM - has given UTC Oxfordshire a fast and flexible solution to everyday glitches, whilst enabling the school to reduce their overall support costs.
“It became immediately clear that many of our issues could be resolved remotely by RM, so we didn’t actually need someone in the college all the time – and this realization contributed to how we structured the service, both now and in the future,” says Owain.
“As Principal, it’s reassuring to know that any issues will be quickly dealt with via a single point of contact, safe in the knowledge that my messages will be cascaded down to the wider support team. Knowing the roles and capabilities of my Operations Manager and Support Engineer, I can go directly to them when it's relevant because they work so closely with our Relationship Manager at RM.”
But as well as reducing costs, the need to derive maximum value from their ICT budget was also paramount for Owain. RM worked closely with UTC Oxfordshire to identify all the areas where added value could be provided and developed a tailored service which includes employer-led projects, partnerships, collaboration and the sharing of good practice.
“RM are constantly seeking out opportunities to provide added value to us - they recently volunteered to come and judge a research project our students have been working on at Bletchley Park on cyphers and encryptions – for us, that’s a classic example of added value.”
The challenge of creating an environment where pupils could learn anytime and anywhere on technologies they’re most familiar with was addressed by embracing a combination of cloud technology and Microsoft software with the support of RM.
“We’ve got two fixed computer rooms, so when we thought about scaling that up, we asked the question of whether we’d need a third and fourth fixed room – but RM helped us develop a much better and more sustainable solution, which was to increase our mobile facilities and bring in Chromebooks which students can use anywhere,” says Owain.
“Chromebooks are slightly more cost-effective than our previous Dell laptops; they’re less intense on technician time, the image doesn’t have to be copied and rebuilt and sent out, and any user can pick up a Chromebook and it remembers their credentials. The battery life is extensive so we haven’t got lots of trailing leads and students really like them.
“We then use Microsoft OneNote extensively in and out of lessons, which is a cloud-based collaborative software package that’s part of the Office 365 Suite. This allows students to make notes, create presentations, compile spreadsheets, take pictures and anything else they need – they can simply drag and drop files into it.
“Cloud-based software, for us, provides total flexibility; students can now continue their learning anywhere at any time, whether it’s around the UTC, in the home, or in the workplace. This collaborative approach has really transformed learning and become firmly embedded in the culture of our school.”
“We’ve created a culture where the cloud enables students to fire up their Chromebook and get instant access to any projects they’re working on. Why would a teacher have to hand out 35 sheets of paper and ask students to fill them out, when they can simply say ‘It’s on your OneNote’?
“We also have our Management Information System (MIS) in the cloud, which means that it’s not hosted here at the UTC so if a teacher is on an educational visit, or people are working remotely, they can log in and find whatever information they need, or even take a register whilst out on a field visit.
“In terms of the technology working seamlessly, we’re now finding that less people are switching on, switching off and on again or having to fiddle about with hardware – and if there’s a software issue, it can be fixed quickly and remotely,” says Owain.
“Traditionally, we’d have had two or three people in a school and we’d give them a call and they’d work their way round to fixing it. Now, we don’t need anywhere near as much on-site technical support and the RM Flex service gives us the added value of a pool of expertise and best practice – meaning they are always able to find a solution.”
“The value for money is tangible too; when we directly compare the cost of employing a full-time Network Manager, it’s clear that the Flex service provides us with considerable cost savings, while using cloud-based technologies has reduced our printing costs by 50%.
“We only have three MFD photocopiers in the whole of the UTC, so students aren’t having to print work – they submit it electronically; and teachers aren’t having to photocopy worksheets in the morning. That means we’re also making savings on things like maintenance costs, hire costs and lease purchases.
“With the solutions we have in place, there’s a shared goal – and that’s why it’s brought us such positive results. We want the UTC to be a success, and RM want to work with us to make it so.”
About RM Education: A leading provider of ICT solutions to schools of all types and sizes across the UK. Specialist services include technology infrastructure, software and services, including learning platforms, interactive classroom equipment, connectivity, networking software, school management software and support services.
For more information, visit www.rm.com