When I asked Bob, the head of the school where I am a governor, what was the best bit of equipment he had bought this year, there was no hesitation. "A new watchstrap after carrying my watch around in my pocket for two years." I had to explain that as he had presumably bought the strap with his own money, it did not count.
Still, even without the watchstrap, schools around the country came up with some fascinating choices, across the widest possible range of prices. The most expensive item mentioned to me cost over Pounds 16,000. The cheapest was 96p.
Unsurprisingly, a number of schools mentioned information technology, particularly CD-Rom. At Malcolm Sargent GM School, in Stamford, for example, information technology teacher Gary Rumbell is enthusiastic about a recently-installed multimedia Acorn A5000 workstation. "The resource it gives to children is superb speed, ease of access."
I heard the same story in other places. Stewart Harris, head of Phoenix Special School in Tower Hamlets, for instance, is full of praise for the school's new Apple Mac CD-Rom with voice synthesiser. "It's made a huge difference to children with communication difficulties. There are fantastic opportunities in this area. At last there is a real use for computers in special needs."
And in Ealing, Malcolm Childs, head of Lady Margaret Primary, was keen to mention the five new multimedia machines which have come into the school this year, four PC-based systems bought by the school and an Apple Mac system from the Government's CD-Rom initiative. "They do mean that horizons can so easily be broadened. There's such a vast amount of information and data."
Malcolm Childs, incidentally, speaks very highly of his supplier, the House of CD-Rom, "a good personal service and a lot of back-up and support". Computer hardware prices are on the move all the time, but a state-of-the-art Pentium PC-based CD-Rom system with a good big monitor is probably still going to cost Pounds 3,000.
Malcolm Childs also nominated as equal best buy, another horizon-broadener in the form of the school's new minibus. Several schools, in fact, mentioned a new or refurbished minibus the year's spotlight on minibus safety seems to have had its effect. Lady Margaret Primary's bus, for example, is a 17-seater Ford Transit with every conceivable useful extra, including the big V6 engine, ABS brakes, high back seats with lap and diagonal belts, high-level brake lights, reversing bleeper, alarmed rear door handles, a tachograph, a continental touring kit and a towbar.
The bus came from Red Kite, which specialises in minibus conversions for school, and according to Malcolm Childs "It's proving its worth for both school and community use". And because the basic vehicle was a recent second-hand model rather than a new one, the total cost, at just over Pounds 16,000, was still reasonable.
Other satisfied minibus users include City of Leeds School, whose refurbished second-hand Volkswagen, with a high roof, and a range of safety fittings, including special seats, cost "about Pounds 10,000" from Kirkham's of Preston. The firm was chosen after a good deal of research by the school into the approach of various suppliers to safety. Head John Urwin explained that "With all the attention on safety in the press, we decided that even though the Government and other agencies were dragging their feet we had to act. We used up our school fund, and we sold our two older buses to buy the new one".
Mary Marsh, head of Queens' School, Bushey, was also certain of her best buy. "In April we invested in a set of eight short-wave radios. This has transformed communications on our 30-acre site."
The radios are carried by caretakers, technicians and other support staff, all of whom are now in contact with each other and with the main reception desk in school. According to Mary Marsh, the system, which cost Pounds 3,500 from CTL Radicom of Greenford, has completely transformed the quality of communication in the school, and she recommends it "to any secondary school or college where support staff need to be flexible and mobile, but able to be in immediate contact where necessary".
Minibuses and two-way radios have to come from the school budget. If you look hard enough, though, you can still find examples of money being spent on schools by the local authority. Dearne Carrfield Primary, for example, in the sadly-depressed area that used to be the South Yorkshire Coalfield, has had a new tarmac surface for the playground, provided by Barnsley authority at a cost of about Pounds 4,000. Geoff Peake, the head, is delighted with it, having had years of seeing his pupils coping with a crumbling surface.
Geoff Peake, with his staff and governors, has made a number of playground improvements at Carrfield, and the whole site is beginning to look very attractive. A fence (built by local firm Darfen) to keep it all secure unfortunately extremely necessary cost the school Pounds 7,000 from its own budget. "It's a matter of priorities, isn't it? You can't put a value on it. The children spend a long time out there, after all."
Raising morale by improving the surroundings was also the theme at the 2,000-pupil Great Barr GM Comprehensive in Birmingham. "The best thing we've bought this year has been paint," says deputy head Geoff Simpson. The school has recently appointed its full-time painter and decorator, who works on the outside in good weather, on public spaces in the holidays, and in classrooms in term time (because it is easy to take a classroom at a time out of use). When he has finished, it will be time to start again. Geoff Simpson is delighted with the results. "It costs us about Pounds 50 to paint a room, and pound for pound it's the best value we can get in the school at the moment. The morale aspect has been quite amazing. When I go to a teacher and say it's your turn to be painted, here's the paint chart, you'd think I'd given him a thousand pounds".
Probably just as satisfying as painting classrooms in bright colours is the feeling you get from tearing up and throwing away useless documents. At Spinney Hill Primary School and Community Centre in Leicester, head Dave Rzeznik has gone a step further and automated the process by buying a shredder, which he chose at the Education Show in Birmingham. He bought a Dahle Paper Safe 20100PS from the Eastern Shires Purchasing Organisation, at a cost of Pounds 121.
Since its arrival, Mr Rzeznik informs me, the shredder "has consumed hundreds of tick lists, discarded sheets from the OFSTED framework, back copies of The TES, tons of promotional leaflets from suppliers, even the head's old ties and socks. The New Year will see it eating old copies of the national curriculum. The recycled waste makes good bedding and litter trays for the school pets. "
The joy of turning the national curriculum into gerbil litter will take some beating. Some schools, however, have achieved similar levels of abandoned delight by finding really cheerful and practical things to use in the classroom.
At Brailes Primary in South Warwickshire, for example, head Anne Dancer has been especially pleased with what she calls her "box of musical goodies". This is, in fact, the NES Children's Orchestra, in the NES Arnold catalogue at Pounds 79.95.
This is a set of eight hand-held percussion instruments for young children, all different but complementary in sound, packed neatly into a box which is light enough to be carried by pupils. The whole instruments and box is beautifully made in wood, a delight to handle. Anne Dancer describes it as "absolute magic. The children love it. And the best thing is that the non-musical teachers use it".
Percussion instruments were also the choice of Jeremy Fathers, head of Blythe Special School in Coleshill. Encouraged by a county initiative aimed at music for children with severe learning difficulties, Mr Fathers "did an audit of our sad and sorry possessions, and found a handful of broken tambourines". For Pounds 500, therefore, Blythe school bought, through a local music shop, a good range of instruments by Percussion Plus, "including a lovely big bass drum on a stand, and also some decent storage facilities. They are being used".
A thoughtful and inexpensive solution to a classroom problem has also pleased the staff at Coundon Junior, in Coventry. They have bought, from the authority's special needs team, a set of plastic letters of the alphabet. Quite a number of these are on the market, but as head Brian Barkway points out, "most are too small or too big. These are about 2.5cm square, small enough to build up the words and they look more natural". What you get is a set of letters and a photocopiable sheet with the alphabet on. At Pounds 2, this must run Great Barr's paint pretty closely for value.
However, perhaps the real prize in the cheap and cheerful category ought to go to the single-hole punch bought by Summerfields Primary School on the Isle of Wight, from the consortium CPD, in Wiltshire, for 96p. Two-hole punches are easy to find. Ones that make a single hole, though, are not so common, and as head John Belcher explains, "in the reception class teachers make up books and do tags. They need to make one hole at the top and it's not easy to do with a double punch. They kept saying we need a single hole punch". I wonder if it will make extra holes in a watchstrap.
CPD, The Consortium for Purchasing and Distribution, Trowbridge, Wiltshire BA14 8RR
CTL Radicom, CTL House, 200 Windmill Lane, Greenford, Middlesex UB6 9DW Darfen Durafencing, Carr Hill, Doncaster, DN4 8DQ
Eastern Shires Purchasing Organisation, Leicester Road, Glenfield LE3 8RT
Kirkham Minibuses, Blackpool Road, Kirkham, Preston PR4 2RE
NES Arnold, 17 Ludlow Hill Road, West Bridgford, Nottingham NG2 6HD
Percussion Plus, 17 Ludlow Hill Road, West Bridgford, Nottingham NG2 6HD
Red Kite, 3 Haddons Drive, Three Legged Cross, Wimborne BH21 6QU
Special Needs Support Team, Elm Bank Teachers Centre, Mile Lane, Coventry CV1 2LQ
The House of CD-Rom, Unit 2, Pickwick Walk, 286 Usxbridge Road, Hatch End, Middlesex HA5 4HS