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The buying game

With so many products on the market, choosing the right equipment can be a minefield. Gerald Haigh checks out a scheme to give schools a helping hand

There's a story told at conferences about the headteacher who feared pupils were reluctant to use school computers as they were so out of date. Strapped for cash, he replaced all their cases one night and the boys and girls seemed perfectly happy with their new state-of-the-art machines - "art" being the appropriate word.

That kind of "upgrade" seems like a desperate act born of lack of long-term planning, which is not something you can lay at Benita Toth's door. Head of Perton First School in Wolverhampton, Toth has kept up with the progress of computers in schools but says she's at a turning point where it's time to reappraise the school's needs.

"We have the basics in place," she says. "We have an ICT suite with an interactive whiteboard. Now we want to look at how we can improve what's in classrooms. For example, we're looking at adding wireless laptops and improving our early years provision."

And as well as the teaching, learning and curriculum decisions involved - all meat and drink to an experienced headteacher - there are also hard choices to be made about the provision itself. "Like many schools," says Toth, "We've always been prepared to go with local authority advice, but now we're spreading our wings and have the confidence to look at best value for ourselves."

The procurement process - drawing up specifications, getting the paperwork right, dealing with suppliers - can be daunting to someone who doesn't do it daily. "If you're not used to dealing with this sort of thing, it's like wading through treacle," says Toth.

Further north, at Balby Primary in Doncaster, ICT co-ordinator Kate Wharton has been struggling across the same molasses lake, too. Faced with the need to update ICT provision and also review the location of the computer suite (it was sharing space with food technology), Wharton needed help. "I am first and foremost a full-time reception teacher," she explains. "At one time I had three suppliers all saying contradictory things, and that left me feeling insecure."

Fortunately for both schools, help was at hand - they are in authorities where Becta's (British Educational Communications and Technology Agency) new Independent Procurement Advisory Service (IPAS) is being piloted. Intended to provide support and advice to decision-makers buying ICT products and services for schools, IPAS is being trialled in five authorities: Blackburn with Darwen, Doncaster, Leicester, Northamptonshire and Staffordshire.

The IPAS brief is to work with heads in ways that co-operate with and supplement what the authority provides. "Where one authority has a high level of service, taken up by many schools, another might have very little in the way of procurement advice. We're finding different needs are coming out," says IPAS manager Ann Charleton.

She's at pains to emphasise that the IPAS is not there to recommend one product or supplier over another; indeed, its website spells out the independence of the service.

"We don't tell them what to buy," she says. "We aim to train teachers in best procurement practice and help them through our website by producing download documents. And we're developing online learning resources. We also run a series of seminars and workshops on topics such as the procurement issues around whiteboards."

The whiteboard seminar is a direct response to the growing number of schools in the market for interactive whiteboards. In some cases the equipment is helping to change the approach to ICT use. "The whiteboard issue is crucial," says Charleton. "A school may have decided on a computer suite only to find that the best impact on teaching and learning might be to have six interactive whiteboards in classrooms and laptops with plug-in wireless connections."

Kate Wharton of Balby Primary was full of praise for the whiteboard seminar. "It really was fantastic and well overdue," she says.

Again, the emphasis is not on pointing to products, but on helping teachers to ask the right questions so they have a level playing field of comparisons between products.

A key principle of the IPAS message is Total Cost of Ownership. The most obvious example of not taking this on board is the school that spends all its ICT money on computers and has none left for software or support. An often quoted rule in business is the "30 per cent rule", which says that only 30 per cent of total cost of ownership of IT is in the hardware; latest thinking is that the proportion is even less. "Support is never free, for example," says Charleton. "Even if a teacher does it, there's a cost involved."

The big issues

* The running costs of printers provides a vivid illustration of the Total Cost of Ownership principle - a cheap printer (or even a free one) may eat up expensive cartridges. Independent Procurement Advisory Service (IPAS) adviser Gareth Honeyford says: "It's like being given a free car then finding it uses fuel that costs pound;1,000 a gallon."

* Don't neglect functional specification - the starting point is not what equipment you want but what you want the ICT to do for teaching and learning.

* A bit of advice may reveal that the equipment a school wants to replace is being under-used through lack of knowledge; if networks and servers are not fully understood, for example.

* The issues of buying for the home and for school are not the same - the requirement and cost of ownership issues are different.

* Remember the starting point is the ICT development plan.

Independent advice from IPAS

Launched at BETT 2001 by education technology minister Michael Wills, the Independent Procurement Advisory Service (IPAS) aims to ensure that the money being pumped into ICT in schools is spent wisely. The pilot project in five local authorities, means considerable experience has been gained in how to work with schools in ways that support and supplement the services of their local authorities.

The IPAS team consists of people with a broad range of experience: there are ex-heads, ICT co-ordinators, teacher trainers, procurement experts, ICT professionals and people from commerce and business. Working as advisers, they provide the expertise that the IPAS will provide through:

* example procurement and contract documents available on paper and online

* an online course

* seminars and workshops

* face - to-face consultancy

* a call centre.

The hub of the service is the website

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