You’re an expert. You know what you’re doing. So why on earth would you need a third party, such as an external consultant, an interim manager or agency staff to lend a hand when it comes to providing a good ICT or Computing education? This article summarises what I’ve learnt about the benefits of hiring outside help like an agency or a consultant, from my experience of doing so and also as (now) an ed tech consultant myself. I hope you find it useful.
The five main reasons to hire outside help
Lack of time
If you’re running a project, say, or conducting a bit of classroom research, or writing a bid for funding, that can be very time-consuming. It might be worth your while to hire someone on a short-term basis for a specific task.
For example, take the case of a Local Authority in which I managed 4 teams. We had one unfilled vacancy, one person signed off sick and another on ‘gardening leave’. I’d been asked to ensure that a key curriculum initiative in Computing was provided according to the strategic plan, and that each school’s broadband hardware was upgraded. I hired a company to tackle the curriculum initiative, and used an agency for a technician dedicated solely to the broadband upgrades. The alternative would have been to have taken months if not years getting those jobs completed, at the expense of other tasks, had I decided to cover the work from the staff I already had.
Another example: I wrote a bid for a Local Authority for funding for a multimedia project across seven schools. The bid was successful, so then I drew up plans for what equipment the money was to be spent on, and then went around the schools talking to teachers and pupils, in order to write a report on the whole thing.
I daresay lots of other people working for the schools or the Local Authority could have undertaken the work, but that would have prevented them getting on with their main job — the one they were actually being paid for.
If you do your due diligence and choose wisely, the external consultant or agency will have no particular axe to grind. Even in the happiest and best-run schools there are internal politics and other factors at play. For example, if the headteacher hates Windows and loves Apple, you would have to be very brave to recommend a Windows product.
To continue using the example of the multimedia project referred to above, I was able to evaluate and advise on different companies’ products and services in a completely independent way. I made use of a similar service when, working in a Local Authority, I needed to hire a consultant to run a particular project. Independent advice is invaluable, whichever side of the fence you sit on. And, as the following examples illustrate, independent advice is something of a rare commodity.
When I was Head of Computing and ICT, a colleague from another school was trying to persuade me to buy a set of laptops from a particular company. He happened to work for them on a part-time basis.
Another person recommended a particular company because his nephew worked there.
Clearly neither of these were independent agents but — and this is really important — even if they were making their recommendations on the basis of solid, objective evidence, it would not have appeared that way to anyone like a school governor or auditor. That’s an important consideration: decisions should be not only above board, but be seen to be so.
Fresh pair of eyes
You would be amazed at how many people get so used to their situation they don’t notice things. One of the schools involved in the multimedia project fell into this category. When I visited the headteacher, I asked her if there was anything special about the school. “Not really”, she said. “But don’t you run a special unit for deaf children that is so good that other schools send their hard-of-hearing pupils here for some lessons?”. She’d either completely forgotten, or simply no longer regarded it as noteworthy.
I found this quite a few times when I was an Ofsted inspector. I’d ask the Head of Computing, “What about [for example] courses for students who want to know about computing but don’t want to take it as an option [if I’d come across a reference to this but no further information]?”, and I’d get a response like “Oh yes, all of our Year 9 students do a one year Digital Literacy course as an optional extra, in a lesson every Wednesday after school, and 95% of students are doing it.” Clearly an amazing thing, but which was just normal everyday life to the school, and not newsworthy at all.
I’ve made that example up, but that’s the kind of thing I mean.
I came across a similar situation when I was evaluating the technical support set-up in a school. The technicians there were brilliant. For example, they gave each computer room a thorough spring clean on a rolling basis, in addition to tidying and clearing up at the end of each day. But nobody else on the staff realised it, because the technicians hadn’t made a point of telling anybody: to them, it was just the way they did things.
(In fact, I discovered that when it came to evaluating a school’s ICT/Computing provision, the ones who did the most boasting had the least amount to crow about. This was exemplified for me by one particular school that had a made a big deal in all its documentation about it’s ‘classroom of the future’. Naturally, when I arrived at the school I asked to see it.
I was shown into an empty room and told, “Well, the emphasis is very much on the future. This is the room where we intend to have some great new equipment.”
Lack of expertise in some areas
In one of my jobs, my line manager was incredible when it came to numbers. He could remember, to the nearest penny, how much each school had spent on computers, and what they’d bought. On the other hand, he couldn’t write in a way that made other people want to read it. I was the complete opposite: I can write engagingly, but when it comes to facts and figures I almost always have to look them up. We’ve each got different skill sets, and you can’t be expected to be an expert in everything.
A good example of that is to be found in that same place of work. Any one of us could have maintained and improved our website, but the boss hired someone from an agency to do it for us. That freed us up to do other things, like visit schools and run training courses.
This is a concept which comes straight out of the economics textbook What it means, taking the example in the preceding point, is that we may well have been better than the agency person at tweaking websites, but as we were comparatively — that is, relatively — better at dealing curriculum-related issues, it still made sense to hire someone else to maintain the website.
The three main types of outside help
In the examples above, I’ve identified three kinds of outside assistance. These are:
This is a person with expertise in a particular area.You would normally hire a consultant to undertake a very specific task. Sometimes, however, you might want to hire a consultant for a set number of days a month, in order to take on a variety of tasks, or a project that will take several months to complete.
This is someone who is hired to manage a team until a permanent post-holder is found. This could be due to an unfilled vacancy. Or it could be to set up, say, a Computing department in a new secondary school. I’ve seen both types advertised.
This could be an agency of consultants, where instead of hiring an individual consultant you hire a consultancy company -- and they allocate a consultant to you. In this arrangement, you may not always get the same person two days running.
Alternatively, it could be an agency of people who are skilled in technical tasks, or administration. For example, in the post in which I managed 4 teams, I hired an admin assistant for a week specifically to process a deluge of invoices.
You may be concerned at the cost of hiring outside help, because the daily rate tends to be higher than that for internal staff. However, it’s worth bearing in mind that you shouldn’t have to pay ‘on costs’. These are costs like tax and National Insurance. When I was hiring staff, these on-costs were, on average, around 30% of their salary.
You also won’t need to pay them when they’re off sick or on leave.
There are also the costs of recruitment to consider. These are:
The time taken to draw up an advert.
Time taken to construct interview questions and activities.
The time spent interviewing.
In my experience, hiring outside help for a specific, non-permanent role is much less costly, especially in terms of advertising-related costs. If you contact an agency or contact a consultant directly, you effectively cut out the cost of an advert.
Finding a consultant or other external assistance
There are agencies that keep a database of consultants and others. These typically charge for handling the process of matching buyer and seller so to speak, and commission.
I tended to prefer word of mouth and web searches to find good people. I was almost always right in my choice.Fortunately, if you go about things properly, you can cancel the services of a consultant much faster than you can dispense with the services of a member of a staff, which is why employing external assistance for specific jobs can be so attractive.
Please note that I’m not an employment or legal expert, and none of this constitutes formal advice. I’m simply sharing what I’ve learnt from hiring consultants etc, and my experiences of being one. You can see the kind of services I offer by going to my consultancy services pages.