Is it Safe to Outsource Your School's IT Support?

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As school purse-strings become tighter, IT support roles are disappearing from the payroll, replaced by contracted managed service providers (MSPs) – IT teams that deliver infrastructure and support to a host of schools, organisations and businesses.

While outsourcing IT makes a lot of sense when you’re looking at your school’s budget, it can lead to doubts. Will an external team understand the unique needs of a school? Can you be certain that sensitive data is kept safe? What kind of support can you expect if something does go wrong?

There’s a lot at stake for schools who outsource IT. If you want to mitigate those risks, you first need to understand what they are.

1. Data
Data is increasingly the most valuable thing any organisation holds – and while it’s an essential for your school, it’s also worth a lot of money if it falls into the wrong hands. Of course, there’s no school that hasn’t experienced the GDPR headache over the last 18 months or so – but it’s absolutely vital that any IT company you work with handles all your data with the same care.

Generally speaking, MSPs were at the forefront of GDPR compliance; setting their own practices in order before supporting clients to do the same. That said, data’s no area for complacency – so making sure an MSPs GDPR policy is as watertight as yours is an important step to take. Compare, contrast, and if you’re not sure, have your MSP clarify.

2. Uptime
While there’s plenty of treading water that can be done if you experience a momentary loss of systems, you’ll find yourself under scrutiny if teaching and learning drops off for a prolonged period of time. Like it or not, IT can derail the who school’s learning – so you need to make sure an IT provider understands the significance of ‘uptime’.

Uptime is the term used to describe access to all systems and applications – with the costly alternative being ‘downtime’. 100% uptime just isn’t possible – there’s always going to be maintenance needed – but outlining applications and timeframes that are non-negotiable with your MSP is a very good move from your school.

You might not lose the thousands of pounds in revenue that a retail chain would lose when their systems fail – but not being able to place a solid monetary value on delivering teaching doesn’t mean it should be considered less-important to your MSP. Most MSPs will be able to outline plans that mean maintenance takes place when convenient – and key systems are monitored round the clock to ensure access.

3. Priority service
As a school, there’s sometimes a nagging doubt around the importance that external companies put on the service they deliver to you – especially when you line up next to businesses with hefty annual financial turnovers and pushy sales performance at the heart of what they do. If you’re worried about being seen as a soft-touch by any potential MSP, it’s important you air this – whether you’re at the beginning of a relationship, or you’ve been working together for years.

Of course, there’s no way of realistically expecting an MSP to push you to the front of the queue – but you can expect fair treatment. Talk to your service provider about what kind of response times, uptime, and service they offer other people, then make sure you’re working from the same starting point. All these things will be documented in black and white in a Service Level Agreement (SLA) – a working contract between the two parties. If you feel like the service you’re getting falls outside what’s been agreed, you’ve got this document to help express a need for change.

4. Proactive support
Uptime figures that are agreed with the company who’ll support your organisation’s IT network and software are always targets, as opposed to promises – so they generally require some maintenance and monitoring to ensure they’re delivered. This is where an MSP comes into their own. Unless you’ve got a substantial staffing budget, you’ll struggle to get round-the-clock systems monitoring from an in-house IT team – but since an MSP is likely to be delivering this for existing clients, adding your network generally won’t cost the Earth.

The risk of reactive support is simply that you’ll need to alert an MSP and start working around problems the moment they occur – again potentially damaging your ability to deliver teaching and learning. As a member of the SLT, you’re likely to sleep far better if you’re walking into school each morning to the prospect of a “we had a problem but we fixed it” email – rather than walking in to find your systems under repair.

5. Insurance
In a world where the NHS and governments can be vulnerable to system problems, there’s ultimately no way anyone can say with 100% certainty that you won’t experience IT issues. As such, MSPs tend to have robust insurance products that protect their clients against risks.

It’s worth remembering that risks don’t always come externally. While an MSP will help you to create policies and procedures that help to reduce the potential of human-error occurring in the school, MSPs are human too, so it’s not impossible that they’ll drop the ball. Talk about insurance and the kind of cover that an MSP will have in place should something unprecedented occur.

6. Cost
Last, but by no means least, is the cost that’s associated with bringing an MSP into your school. The risk isn’t related to what you’ll pay per se, more that unexpected costs could crop up that fall outside of your agreed SLA.

Normally, an agreement with an MSP is based around maintenance and repairs only – with an additional cost being incurred for additions or adaptations to a system. While this might work for some companies, schools often require a predictable outlay through the year – so if you’re concerned about additional cost, it’s something you might want to talk to discuss with your MSP. By considering the plans you have across the academic and financial years, good MSPs will be able to anticipate some costs – making sure you’re not attacking your budget to find additional funds.
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