Free DfE Device Chaos!

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On the 19th May 2021, an email was sent by the DfE to hundreds of schools across the UK, reminding them that on the 30th September 2021 the security software licenses will expire on all restricted devices.

So, what does this mean to schools affected by this update? Well, quite a lot actually. This comes down to ownership and responsibility. Simply put, from the 1st of October 2021, you will need to have something in place to replace the free service provided by the DfE. Now bear in mind, if you do intend to provide something (Anti-virus etc.) you will need access to these devices. That’s easier said than done considering that they will likely be not be in one location. Restricted devices also came BIOS locked (the underlying software that manages the hardware of the laptop) which means, asking a parent to make some changes is going to be inherently complex. Restricted devices also came with user accounts only; to obtain the admin credentials you will need to login to the support portal and request the information.

This already sounds like hard work; especially considering the need to purchase anti-virus for each of these (exceptionally cheap, low-end) devices as well. Suddenly what looked like an easy free fix, is rapidly becoming a complete management nightmare. What realistically are your options though?

  1. Give the devices away (no, we’re not even joking). By passing ownership to the families who were provided with the devices in the first place, you will no longer be responsible for updating or securing the devices. I appreciate this doesn’t sound particularly philanthropic, but it’s an option none-the-less. However, from the 1st of October, you will still need to provide the parents with the Admin credentials and BIOS password, so that they can secure the device themselves (if they technically know how to do that). I can pretty much guarantee that all of a sudden, you’ll see eBay explode with these laptops, all BIOS locked and unusable or they will simply be thrown away. Both options are pretty difficult to swallow.
  2. Get the devices back (this is almost a joke). The devices do still belong to you; the purpose was to provide families who did not have facilities to enable remote learning for their children during the pandemic, with devices to do so. Now that we’re all back in school, you can legitimately ask for them back – but good luck with that. The handful that you’ll get back each week may be damaged or simply can’t be found any more. This is no reflection on the families and I’m not passing judgement with that comment, this is my own experience of dealing with these situations. When you buy something, you tend to look after it a little better than with something that you’re given for free. I’m sure there is a psychiatric term for this and is a lesson that my own children are currently learning! If you get the devices back, you’re in a much better position to centrally manage the unlocking and reimaging of the machines – once this is done, you can do what you like with them, but at least you’ll have control.
  3. Remotely manage the takeover (if you’re feeling brave). Before you read any more of this, check out the DfE instructions on resetting your device here. If you have the resource to perform this with every device then, honestly, I’m not sure why you went with the restricted devices in the first place. But that’s fine, once you’ve reset the machines you will need a plan on how these are managed, updated and secured. It’ll probably be worth at that point, properly managing the asset so that they can be taken back in from time to time to be checked and then resent out to families that need them. This is a huge and costly undertaking; managing this kind of operation even for sub-100 devices, is no easy task. What will do with devices that can’t be accessed or have been lost? Who will remain responsible for them as time goes by?

The government delivered over a million devices during the pandemic, I can’t seem to find out how many were restricted and therefore affected by this change in September, but it’s likely to be a great deal. What was initially a potentially great idea is rapidly becoming a burden on schools who are still recovering from the pandemic. With potentially hundreds of thousands of devices now in the hands of disadvantaged families, who are unable to resolve this security problem themselves without assistance, how long will it be before a school is held responsible for a child safeguarding incident that is caused by an unsupported device?

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