The digital context in small provisions

In a small setting like an alternative provision, youth work organisation or independent school it’s possible to feel a bit isolated and overwhelmed in terms of support for your digital needs. Maintained provisions like schools have access to resources provided by the local authority, or they may be part of a locality network or Multi Academy Trust who can steer (or dictate) decision-making on digital strategy.

There are so many incredible software resources available for use in education, ranging from the well known and entirely free, to highly specialised and fairly expensive. Knowing what the best mix of options are to meet the needs of staff and children/young people whilst keeping within your budget is incredibly important. It’s also something that will need to develop and be reviewed over time. 

Cost vs function

Thinking about the bigger picture in terms of how software affects processes on the ground in a small provision is key. For example, the cheapest options may be ideal for getting off the ground, but they aren’t always the best in the long run. As your provision develops in response to the changing needs of those it serves, basic inexpensive options can feel increasingly in flexible.

Using tools like spreadsheets is great, but over time it can lead to more and more data being kept in multiple locations with issues around security and accessibility for a growing team. Meanwhile, highly specialised or customised software can be too expensive to develop and when it is time for it to evolve it can cost you even more. The solutions that claim to be able to run every aspect of your organisation should also be treated with caution – no one software solution can do everything, so be reassured if suppliers are very clear and honest about the limitations of what their solution can offer. 


A cautionary software tale

I worked with a school on a basic digital strategy a number of years ago. They opted for a software package that ran all their school functions for students and went with a free-for-education package (Google) to run their emails, calendars and staff documentation. Having a great software product was not the cheapest way to do it, but they recognised the value and wanted to invest.

The solution allowed them to streamline a lot of processes creating efficiency and ensuring nothing important could be missed around student safety or progress. Staff felt safe and knew what they were doing, had one password to log in for student-related actions, and built up a great base of knowledge about the system over a long period of time. 

After a number of years I came across an inspection report that detailed how student data in the school was poorly maintained with vital information slipping through the gaps. Upon enquiry, it became clear the school had swapped from one system to a patchwork of many smaller software products with individual logins, some used by all and others used for different types of role in the school.

This had saved money (and I am sure school leaders had been under real pressure to achieve this) but had negatively impacted the quality of processes on the ground as well as an inspection outcome. By shopping around, the school had found they could make cost savings, but had created a much more frustrating environment for staff and far less secure and comprehensive arrangements for their data. It is difficult to know the more diffuse impacts of making life harder for already hard working staff, but given the current retention crisis in schools I am sure it can’t have helped.  

I do not cite this example in order to suggest one big system is the best option – there are many best-in-class software products that might be used in combination. For example safeguarding systems or parent communication apps that integrate with an MIS, or software that allows staff to access multiple systems through a single interface. What I am arguing here is that having a careful digital strategy that feeds into your organisation’s values, vision and purpose should lead you to think carefully and critically about the best possible balance between cost and efficiency.

Top tips for creating a digital strategy in a small setting

  • Assess and record where you are – what digital tools are you already using and what are they giving you/costing you?
  • Make digital part of your growth plan. Think about what will be needed as you grow your staff team and the number of people accessing your provision and make it part of your broader development strategy. Growth sometimes means more hardware and software, but sometimes it means an inventory and update of what you already have.
  • Think about devices as well as software – what approach will you take to children/young people and staff being able to access systems? Do staff have work smartphones/tablets or are they working on PCs? How are you planning to meet your statutory obligations to monitor and filter CYP digital engagement? Are there issues around digital poverty with your cohort/ their families? Is more tech a solution, or a problem in your context?
  • Plan for how staff will feel about any changes – leaders mostly underestimate the impact of hardware and software changes; they can be incredibly frustrating for already overstretched staff. Building in time and identifying the positive change agents will be crucial to successful implementation. Who will need the most support? Who will resist? Who will be a cheerleader for digital development?
  • See what you can get for free companies like Google for Education and Microsoft offer software free of charge for education settings or charities; these are a good starting point but will need to be reviewed as you grow. Don’t take for granted that free solutions will always be right for you.
  • Build in a review of your software and devices at least twice a year – This doesn’t have to be lengthy or formal, but make some time to speak with users/stakeholders and keep in contact with current suppliers about their plans for development to help inform any changes now or in the future.
  • More expensive isn’t always better – get some advice on options before committing to anything that needs to be developed bespoke for you. A bit of cost for expert consultancy from someone who knows the EdTech market will likely save you a lot of money in the long run. Great people can be found easily via LinkedIn – look at who they have supported previously and take some recommendations from others in small settings who have worked with a great consultant.

Dr Alexandra Gray is an author and researcher and the Managing Director at LearnTrek, a cloud-based software platform for Alternative Provisions and Special Schools.