The UK education system has a myriad of problems. Schools are under pressure to reduce costs and find £3bn of savings; teachers are unhappy with the exam pressure heaped on primary pupils; opinion is firmly divided over the introduction of new grammar and free schools; and the sector is struggling to afford to pay and retain existing staff, let alone recruit new people.
Meanwhile, the UK is outside of the top 10 countries when it comes to student performance. According to the latest Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development rankings, the UK comes 15th for science, 21st for reading and only 27th for maths.
The Department for Education (DfE) has the task of keeping a handle on the entire education system in the UK, including overseeing around 20,000 schools in England, and ensuring that all children and adults get access to the best possible education. Faced with these challenges, the organisation has undertaken an internal modernisation project with mobile and cloud computing at its heart, which the DfE hopes will make it more agile, efficient and better able to support the education sector.
Adrian Tucker, chief technology officer at the DfE, explains that the transformation project was initially instigated out of the need for an office move.
The catalyst really was about us looking at our estate strategy. We had a internal plan to move our main building in London to a different building. We had a data center in our London building that we were moving from. There were a lot of options we looked at. We could have moved the data center to the new building, which would have been quite scary of course; we could have built some new data centers in the new building; or we could take the opportunity to completely look at our technology stack.
I spent lot of time looking at the options, what represented good value and what was possible. We finally came to the conclusion this was a really good opportunity to not just deal with the problem in hand, but move forward with the technology stack in the DfE.
The DfE chose Microsoft as the partner for both the mobile and cloud strands of the project, opting for a mix of the Surface Book and Surface Pro running Windows 10 to replace the previous laptops and desktops; and moving its application hosting from in-house servers to Microsoft’s Dublin data centers.
The department began initial discussions towards the end of 2014, followed by a six-month period of discovery. The main transformation programme kicked off in earnest in 2015, and the whole project was completed within 18 months by March this year. The office move has yet to take place and will be to another London-based location.
The significant part of what we’ve done is the pace. We’ve been able to drive a full technology stack change in 18 months within a central government department. I think that’s what’s gained people’s attention really. It was pretty fast for a Whitehall department, but I’ve been able to land all the benefits.
New technology, new skills
Tucker attributed the speed of the project to two main aspects: getting the support of the DfE board and establishing a trusted partnership with its suppliers to ensure a smooth handover to existing staff.
We created a relationship with our suppliers to ensure they left knowledge transfer behind. We built in that whole learning curve for our people, and made sure that as part of the overall programme, there was sufficient training and opportunity for them to go and work in other businesses who’d already moved to cloud-based model.
We had people capable of running a complex data center, unplugging things, fixing things. Their job today is now managing cloud operations and the suppliers who now do that for us. It would have been really easy for me to bring in a load of suppliers to do this programme and then leave the permanent team with very little understanding of what we’d delivered. The permanent team have been very much a part of this and had the opportunity to reskill.
Tucker adds that the project was never about cutting jobs, explaining that the 160 IT staff was a “fairly lean team” anyway.
The DfE turned to Surface devices as they offered staff the ability to work from anywhere, while freeing up expensive office space.
We had a thin-client based system before we went into this programme. While this was quite flexible – you could sit down at any desk in any of our buildings across the UK – it was clearly coming to the end of its life in terms of future technology.
What we also recognised is, as space becomes more of a premium in government in terms of building space, and the way we were starting to become much more migrationry in the way we worked - getting into the education sector more and our capital team being able to go out and survey schools – it became less about desktop replacement and more about enabling mobility in the DfE.
The Surface Book and Pro were also selected for their value for money, usability but most importantly future-proofing, according to Tucker.
We wanted to look forward rather than backward. I was aware that the DfE would probably be working very differently in six months or a year’s time from when we made the decision. We tried to bake in some future-proofing. The Surface tablet is clearly very light, it can be used with just the screen, it has the pen for annotation, it has touch. You could put it in your bag and be mobile and work from any location.
All 5,000 staff at the DfE were offered the choice of either a Surface Pro or Book. Tucker says that about 60 percent opted for the Book and 40 percent chose the Pro 4, adding that this split was no surprise as people currently are more familiar with the form factor of the laptop-style Book. The move has enabled the DfE to decrease the number of devices supported from 22 down to just two, a welcome reduction for Tucker.
It’s all about cost. Supporting one software build and two devices is all a lot cheaper than trying to do multiple builds and multiple devices.
Prior to rolling out the Surface devices, the DfE ran pilots on both models for around 150 to 200 people. This happened around the same time the organisation was moving to Windows 10, and threw up new challenges as well as cementing the value of the devices.
We needed to do lot of work with our networks to ensure they got the best possible use. If you’re in a desk at the DfE, you can plug into a surface dock; when you unplug, it automatically connects to available Wi-Fi for a secure link. But it also proved to us the device was fast enough. We have a number of heavy end-users around analytics, and the processing speed was pretty good.
On the data center side, Tucker cites location and security as the core decision-making factors:
We were looking for a secure location with the ability to connect at speed. Dublin made sense geographically.
The DfE’s non-critical and non-sensitive business applications are now hosted out of the Dublin data center, including CRM and online profiles for various services.
The internal modernisation the DfE has undertaken should also have knock-on benefits for the UK education sector, Tucker asserts.
The fact we decommissioned a lot of things along the way in moving to the cloud meant our running costs will be lower, and clearly that will have an impact on the cost of the department and ultimately what’s available to the education sector. This was always about us being more efficient and being able to use technology that’s more bang up to date. Without a doubt, there will be a benefit around the digital capability of the DfE. The Surface devices allow our people to be more effective and work from different places. Cloud lets people connect much more simply.
Schools are devolved and can make their own decisions on the technology they have. In the past, that necessitated quite a complicated array of interfaces to make sure that worked. By having a cloud offering, anything we build in the future or upgrading current applications, means it’s a lot easier to allow that to be offered to the sector. We can host things in the cloud, people can very simply access resources. It inevitably is more complicated when you’re running in-house data centers and separate systems.
Tucker is confident that the DfE won’t ever face such a big upgrade again as it has moved to an “evergreen” technology stack, while the Surface devices are future-proofed for “at least three or four years”. However, he declined to confirm the exact length of contract the DfE has signed up for with Microsoft.
There would have been a set period of time in the contract that I wouldn’t be able to tell you, partly because I don’t know. We aren’t baked in for 10 years, but at the same time we’re baked in long enough to take maximum benefit from it.
Despite Tucker rightly highlighting the speed of the project completion as unusual across the public sector, the one thing he would do differently is make it even faster.
This raises quite a few eyebrows, but in some ways we’d probably go faster if we did it again. Sometimes you get to a point where you want everything to be perfect before you change it and the reality is quite often that’s not possible. There were a couple of points during the migration where we probably umm’d and ah’d about trying making it perfect; in fact we could have waited three years and it still wouldn’t have been perfect.
It’s about getting through that pain really quickly. Be bold – be controlled, be secure but be bold because actually these troubles will come, whether you go slow or fast.