How to sell IT to schools

Pupils and students might be starting to sense the long summer holiday approaching (despite being given precious little clue by the weather), but their schools and colleges are already planning, and buying for the next academic year starting in September.

Education is a huge opportunity for IT vendors, distributors and resellers, given the role that ICT plays in both supporting traditional elements of curriculum learning and the importance of developing digital skillsets for tomorrow’s workforce – Microsoft and Google funded a recent study that determined the UK will need an additional 740,000 workers with digital skills by 2017.

But it’s also a notoriously difficult nut to crack for the IT trade, with procurement and spending controlled by a combination of the educational institutions themselves and local councils, with all the layers of bureaucracy that can entail.

Then you have the macro economic climate in education, with budgets strangled by cuts from
central Government.

The key to riding these peaks and troughs is to change approach accordingly. ASUS has recently re-aligned its education product focus and teams to support institutions from the pre-sale stage. Indeed, it returned to the Bett Show this year after a four-year absence to showcase the ruggedised Chromebook C202 –
designed specifically for the education market.

“With budgets being cut, devices need to be cost-effective, and so does the ecosystem that goes with them – the software, infrastructure and security,” says Natalie Boon, channel marketing specialist at ASUS UK. “The Cloud has helped support cost-down IT solutions for schools without compromising on manageability or security. Support post-purchase with on-site warranties also makes a huge difference to device longevity and the cost impact on schools.”

TP-LINK, which has been targeting hard-pressed schools with cost-effective wireless networking solutions, has also sought to adapt its approach in light of more austere budgeting.

“The end of the summer term is really the only time school IT managers and directors have to assess where additions are required and start pricing up options for the new academic year,” explains Andy Woolhead, senior VAR account manager at TP-LINK UK. “Resellers are telling us that education IT managers are incredibly concerned about cost and we have responded by creating a 15 per cent discount for our partners to the end of 2016. We’ve also tried to help by offering free networking surveys to enable education IT departments get the most out of their budgets.”

Discounting in price sensitive areas is clearly an option that vendors and resellers are exploring to good effect. But gaining insight into how schools and councils actually manage their IT budgets and spending can also be invaluable.

Key Finance has been leasing equipment into schools for 25 years, working closely with both the consultants employed by councils to handle tenders, and on direct deals. As such,
it is familiar with the behind the scenes machinations – it’s currently seeking partners in the IT trade to offer educational institutions fully-financed IT equipment solutions.

“The vast majority of schools will look to lease their IT equipment,” says Key Finance chairman John Mounsey. “If the first obstacle encountered by an IT supplier is the school having ‘no budget’, then we can partner with the vendor or reseller to help broker a deal on terms that suit both sides.

“Ultimately, we all want schools to be able to spend as much of their budget as possible on the equipment, rather than financing fees, so we have to be competitive. Our role is to help vendors and resellers close deals, while making sure schools get want they need at the best possible rate.”

Key Finance has written leasing deals with educational institutions and councils worth as little as £1,000 all the way up to £20 million and is comfortable doing so due to the nature of the market.

“State schools in particular can be regarded as relatively low risk as they fall under the same budgetary banner as local government – in the unlikely event that a school is unable to pay for IT equipment it has leased, then the council will step in,” explains Mounsey.

In fact, anecdotal evidence suggests there is pressure on schools to use equipment for much longer than they used to, potentially allowing them to spread the cost even more.

“A few years ago schools were happy with a three-year lifecycle, but now they are on five or even seven-year refresh cycles, so they want to see equipment that is built to last and has a warranty to match,” says Mark Wallwork, head of B2B at system
builder Zoostorm.

But despite harsh economics, demand is certainly there. As a specialist IT partner within the education sector, Krome Technologies works with numerous different schools, academies, colleges and universities, utilising the most suitable technologies to help overcome common challenges faced by IT teams.

“As is the case across the public sector as a whole, budgets are tighter than ever, but the reliance on technology is ever increasing,” says Daniel Hills, public sector business manager at Krome Technologies. “The adoption of Bring Your Own Device (BYOD) hasn’t been as forthcoming as originally predicted, with many schools deciding it would put unnecessary pressure on both students and parents. All of which means demand is as strong as ever to supply fixed hardware in the classrooms, such as designated PCs and laptops for students.”

Left to right: Andy Woolhead, Daniel Hills and John Mounsey

In terms of the type of ICT equipment schools are looking for, Zoostorm’s Wallwork says the trend is towards ultra small form factor systems.

“Larger class sizes demand quieter devices with smaller footprints and improved efficiency, leading to a dramatic increase in systems with solid state drives, allowing suites to have more PCs with increased performance,” he adds. “It has also breathed new life in to the traditional All-in-One PC systems, with their increased power and efficiency, seeing
a rise in units ordered year-on-year.”

The trend towards smaller devices is also seen elsewhere, with Boon stating that the most in demand ASUS devices are portable and connected, allowing students and teachers to engage in a variety of environments.

“The classroom is no longer the only place to best educate and interact with children, so allowing them to take their learning tools with them further enables productivity and better performance,”
she adds.

This trend also applies to software. In fact, reseller Sweethaven cites Microsoft’s Innovative Educator Programme as driving a move towards a teaching model where classes are pupil-led, enabling the teacher to spend more direct time with the children rather than at the front of the classroom. But it’s not just about what Microsoft
can provide.

“Use of Office 365 means that pupils can authenticate with the cloud and allow other programmes to form part of the collaborative network created,” says Martin Byrne, head of tech at Sweethaven Education Services. “The creation of a unified single sign-on system also enables pupils to link in to Google apps via this set up, thus facilitating wider access within a controlled environment.”

Such possibilities mean the teaching staff and students both require training, which presents vendors and resellers with more opportunities to engage with schools.

“Just like with hardware, software like Office 365 should be properly set up and training provided to ensure all are making the most of its potential,” adds Byrne. “This presents a huge opportunity for upselling fixed price migration packages, with the potential for bolt-ons including training, integration with other services and devices – and the creation of a whole virtual learning environment.” 

PCR’s Sector Spotlight on Education – in association with Tech Data – is running throughout July 2016 – click here for more articles

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