If you’re a new school looking at what to do regarding email, or perhaps an existing school in the process of planning a new build, then you’re probably considering cloud school email. Microsoft and Google have been busy beavering away in schools for some years now with their respective Office 365 and Google for Education products and they both offer loads of benefits.

 

We work with single primaries, federated secondaries, academy trusts – the whole shebang. And quite often we’re helping them decide “to cloud or not to cloud” for school email. Hopefully this collection of thoughts will help you come to a decision too if you’re in that boat.

 

What have you got and how are you using it?

“You can’t know where you’re going until you know where you’ve been”. Or says Will Smith, one of history’s great philosophers (Hitch, 2005).

 

An assessment of what to do with email starts with an assessment of what you’ve got in general.

 

Infrastructure

On-premise, hybrid, cloud? If you’ve already got other applications or parts of your infrastructure in the cloud, it would make more sense to stay on that path.

 

Servers

Age? Condition? If your server is on its last legs, then with the capital cost of buying new hardware this would weigh a decision more in favour of the cloud route.

 

Firewall/Anti-virus

Age? Cloud-based?  Integrates with?

 

If you’re already using a cloud-based firewall and anti-virus, then putting your mail server in the same place makes perfect sense. In any case, how kindly they would play with an alternative solution – whether cloud-based or on premise – becomes a factor in the decision. Similarly, if the firewall is a number of years old or the anti-virus is up for renewal, then again looking at integrated cloud options would usually be preferable.

 

The answers to each of those points could end up leading you clearly down one path over another so it’s worth doing this exercise upfront.

 

What’s the strategy for teaching and learning?

You can make a strong argument that this should be the starting point and indeed for some schools it is. I think it would be naive to avoid discussions of the more economic nature that always have to take place between IT teams, business managers and bursars. “Can we get another year out of the server?” All of that plays more of a role than any school would like into decisions around technology. It’s also not acceptable to try and distinguish between the actual IT needs of the school, managed by the Network Manager, and the curriculum technology needs. After all, wherever the school goes with curriculum technology to support the attainment of students and indeed the effectiveness of teaching and admin staff, then it’s down to the Network Manager and his/her team to support it.

 

So it’s how inextricably linked the curriculum tech and infrastructure tech is that drives this point. In assessing what to do with cloud school email, there must be input from the senior leadership team and the faculty.

 

If the school wants to be nationally recognised for its pioneering work as a Forest School, taking lessons outside the confines of a building is commonplace. Their needs may differ drastically to a school that’s looking to become a regional leader in offering vocational courses in construction.

 

Anytime, anywhere education is all about digitisation. And usually that comes with an expectation for a consistent approach across devices and locations. This is all a lot simpler with a cloud-based approach to school email.

 

Internet connection

When evaluating what to do for email in your new school or new building, then the internet connection is a critical consideration.

 

I’m sure it goes without saying, but you need to make sure you have the right speeds (upload in addition to download), uncontended line and the ability to manage your connection (you can check out a recent article we wrote on this).

 

So if you’re going cloud, factoring in the upgrade costs of better connectivity is something to throw into the mix.

 

The lack of a stable, high speed internet connection in some areas of the UK is an obvious Achilles heel that must be taken into consideration.

 

And while a definition of what ‘high speed’ is will obviously depend on a number of factors (not least the size of the school) – what about stability? This can be more difficult to quantify as organisations don’t always actively measure their network uptime. Even if you’re a tiny primary school with a “consumer-style” internet connection, there’ll still be some stats you can check out.

 

If your school doesn’t have access to good connectivity, then forget about cloud school email for now.

 

Where’s technology going in general?

If technology providers keep on nudging with licensing changes, or launching their new products exclusively in the cloud, then the medium to long term for on-premise email starts to look relatively bleak. Whether it’s compute power for the server, backups, firewalls, it’s all going to the cloud. So it only follows suit that your email will at some point probably be with the vast majority of the rest of your infrastructure – on someone else’s servers. So there’ll be an element of futureproofing that would come with a decision to go to cloud school email.

 

The practical side of management

Running an on premise Microsoft Exchange server can bring a whole host of challenges. It’s a tricky little sod. And quite frankly, resources in schools haven’t been as stretched as they are now for over 20 years.

 

As primary schools come away from local authority control they’re having to fund technical support from a third party company to make sure their email is kept live. That’s certainly easier to do if the systems are in the cloud as administration and management can be done from anywhere with no need to establish any other additional remote working protocols.

 

In secondaries, Network Managers are losing technicians left right and centre and let’s face it – it’s not like there’s a shortage of other things to look after rather than the email server going down and trying to get service back up and running.

 

If you go cloud-based for email in your school, there’s one less headache in any given manic Monday. This is a good thing. A very good thing.

 

Summary

This is the bit in a comparison article where things can get woolly. But in this case it’s pretty clear cut for me. If you’ve just spent tens of thousands of pounds on new servers and firewalls, or you live in a technology blackspot of the UK that can’t give you the internet connection that you need, then you should go on-premise. If you’re one of the rest of the overwhelming majority of schools, then you should go for cloud school email.