By Oliver Alcock, Director of ICT at Trinity MAT
Multi-Academy Trusts (MATs) have been working with tight budgets for years, and being able to maintain a first-class education for pupils whilst ensuring financial stability is at times difficult.
Trinity MAT in particular is a group of high-performing schools in the West Yorkshire area, having been established in 2015, catering for pupils from pre-school age right up to the sixth form. After bringing the schools together into the MAT, we quickly realised that in order to create a strong IT provision that works across several locations, trying to spend as little as possible on technology does not work; it’s about choosing the right supplier to procure your IT infrastructure from, and thinking in the long-term rather than searching for a cheap ‘one size fits all’ solution.
Investing in infrastructure
Running several schools simultaneously within a MAT does come with some unique challenges. Each school is different, with its own unique needs and its own diverse age range of pupils. Previously we ended up working with a huge mix of different servers and disparate storage networks to manage this, all run by different manufacturers and needlessly complicated. As a result, I was keen to overhaul our IT infrastructure, and find a server solution that joined us up and scaled to each school’s requirements; offering the opportunity for Trinity MAT to operate as one entity, while ensuring no school would be left without its needs met. When looking for solutions to our old and increasingly unreliable setup, I was interested to see what hyper-converged infrastructure could do for Trinity. That was when I was introduced to Stone Group’s Equinox system, a hyper-converged virtualisation platform which works as an alternative to traditional Server and SAN solutions in schools.
Another major motivator for my interest was budget. The benefits of having a single system for every school certainly appealed to us, but cost always has to be a consideration. Do you buy cheaply to balance the books? Or do you invest early on to avoid complications later? To help us navigate this decision, we enlisted the support of Stone Group.
We trialled the Equinox solution within the central IT team initially, after which it was rolled out more widely – spending smarter rather than spending more.
Investing for the future
Trinity MAT spans several schools across different sites including Trinity Academy Halifax, Cathedral Academy, and Trinity Academy Sowerby Bridge. All of them have widely varying requirements when it comes to IT infrastructure. Making sure that the new system was flexible was a huge priority of ours, along with the capability to scale the system to each school’s needs. This is a scenario in which a MAT has to consider what is the best value system for them.
It can seem like a good idea at first to procure infrastructure that is cheap, but this can lead to challenges as day-to-day management requires time and investment. Costs of maintenance and repairs can rack up quickly and leave the school’s wallet lighter than anticipated, in less time than expected. It isn’t a ‘race to the bottom’. Careful consideration about where and how you obtain new technology is the key to avoiding hurdles later down the line.
Educators need to ask themselves: can we afford to replace this entire system if it breaks in two years’ time? I believe that thinking ahead, visualising 5-10 years into the future, is key to the success of any system. Consider finding a partner that won’t ‘cut and run’ – a partner that will provide the technology that the MAT needs, but also provide the necessary protections far into the future. When we chose to work with Stone, one of the main drivers for our decision was the option to have a five-year warranty. Putting the limited amount of money in the right places should be of utmost importance, and guaranteed protection for that amount of time seemed like sensible choice.
This way of thinking also offers benefits pupils. When we completed this particular project, there was very little change for them – in fact, to them, it probably seems like nothing has changed. The difference lies in back-office where operations run smoother, and maintenance is prompt and minimally needed. The Stone Virtualisation Support Services (VSS) keeps us constantly updated and keeps communication open on any changes or issues that might arise.
This also leaves staff feeling much more supported, giving them the peace of mind that they are delivering an education programme that will create the technology innovators of tomorrow. They are also able to work much faster when they are not forced to work with slow incumbent devices and software. Now that are servers have been overhauled, we’ve turned our attention to hardware, and are upgrading pupils’ PCs with the same partner.
It’s essential that schools work together and use their differences to collaborate. Our world is becoming more interconnected every day, with siloes and old ways of working being discarded in favour of a more united approach. It’s vital that we learn to work in this way if we are to prepare school pupils for the world they will be contributing to.
Long term planning, with the support of a technology partner, has offered multiple benefits to us. The protection in case of breakdown and cost-savings further down the line has offered us peace of mind and allows us to focus on other IT priorities and delivering outstanding teaching across all of Trinity’s sites.