When I was a head, the only contact I ever had with a debt collection agency was over our photocopier leasing contract. Photocopiers, as one dealer put it, "are the most loved and also the most hated pieces of school equipment".
They are loved because they bring efficiency and quality to administration; hated because they break down at inconvenient times, and can siphon money out of the budget at an unforeseen rate. Wrong decisions at the start can be expensive to put right.
THE RIGHT SIZE
a Toshiba manager told me: "Over 80 per cent of all copying consists of copying an A4 original on to A4 sheets. The typical school user lifts the lid, puts the original on the glass and looks for the big green button that says 'go'."
The message is that every feature beyond the big green button has to be carefully justified. The two basic variables, which between them determine a copier's price and position in the market, are its recommended capacity expressed in copies per month, and its speed expressed in copies per minute.
Thus a fairly basic copier, perhaps suitable for a small primary school, will produce 15 to 20 copies per minute, and its recommended capacity will be about 10,000 copies a month. It will cost about Pounds 2,000. Further up the scale, a machine for the print room of a big secondary school might do 60 copies per minute with a capacity of 60,000 a month. It will cost about Pounds 20, 000, and many extra features will be fitted as standard.
Where in this price range do you need to look? The important figure to get right is the number of copies per month. Work your copier too hard and it will keep breaking down. Work it at much less than the optimum and you could have bought a cheaper machine.
Therefore spend time - perhaps a month or half a term - counting and assessing your copying needs before you look at machines. Remember that schools have widely varying seasonal copying demands. Build these into your calculations. Once you have a monthly copy figure, look at appropriate machines. Be confident of your calculation - sales staff may try to sell you a bigger machine than you need. Now consider what other features you want or need. (Some of these may be fitted as standard.) REDUCTION AND ENLARGEMENT
Earlier, cheaper copiers did size changes in fixed steps. Most of those in schools now have a variable zoom control.
this makes the machine able to copy on to both sides of the paper. You can do this manually, so you need to be sure whether you want to pay about Pounds 400 for automatic duplex.
With this you can load a multi-page original into a hopper on top and the machine will copy it page by page. As an optional extra, it will cost you about Pounds 800. Do you need it? If you produce a lot of multi-page documents, perhaps you do.
Presents you with complete sets of a multi-page document, so you do not have to lay them all out on a table and bring them together by hand. Together with a document feeder, if you make lots of multi-page documents, a sorter will save significant time. A 10-bin sorter will add about Pounds 500.
An additional feature on some up-market sorters - it staples the document as well as making it up.
Many copiers will add colour by allowing you to change to a coloured toner. Do you need this? Experience shows that it is little used.
A straight counter would probably be enough in a small primary school. A bigger school may want to give each department an access code, and to have costs allocated individually. Some methods use "credit cards" which can be pre-loaded with copying credit. A copier may come equipped with a counting system, or the dealer may offer one made by another supplier.
There are other features - extra paper trays, editing functions, overlay facilities. Assess them carefully on the basis of proven need.
Leading copier manufacturers all produce good machines which differ only in detail. More important is the deal you make and the back-up service you receive from the dealer or local representative. Bargain hard, and play off one dealer against another. They have good margins within which to find discounts and you should get between 25 and 40 per cent off the retail price.
A good machine for a primary school, or for staff use in a secondary school, will cost under Pounds 3,000. Consider whether you can afford to pay for it outright.
Three years ago the Office of Fair Trading investigated photocopier leasing and found it a hotbed of dubious practice. Things have improved since then, but there are still some difficult areas. Ask the local authority for advice.
THINGS TO WATCH OUT FOR
Do not just look at the monthly payments - ask the price of the copier.
Do not take on too long a lease. Three years is sensible. Five years is an absolute maximum, because by then the machine will be very tired if not dead.
Some firms now offer a 90-day lease, which makes it easier to give notice to stop or to change. What happens if you want to change the machine before the lease ends? If the lease is for several years, then you probably have to pay up the unused term of the lease and then start a new lease for the new machine.
This means that when the salesman goes away you will have a new machine, a bit better than the old one. The payments on it, though, will be much more, because they have also to cover the outstanding money on the old machine. And instead of being a year or two from finishing the contract, you have started all over again.
Furthermore, in a couple of years' time that nice salesman will turn up and persuade you to do exactly the same again. Some schools have got themselves into terrible difficulty over a period of time with this sort of thing.
Lease documents often use the term "rental". However, a "true" rental is available from the Danwood Group, the biggest dealer in Sharp photocopiers.
This rental plan enables you to upgrade or downgrade your machine at any time without penalty, and you can end the agreement altogether on 90 days' notice. Danwood's rental plan is currently used by a number of public bodies including Wolverhampton Council and the Open University.
You usually pay for this in a maintenance contract costed at a rate per copy. Keep the lease and the maintenance contract separate from each other. When you buy or lease the copier, haggle about the maintenance contract. Aim for 0.5p a copy, inclusive of toner.
You want a repairer round quickly when the copier goes wrong. The maintenance contract may specify "four-hour response" but you want to know whether the machine will actually be mended on this first call. Good suppliers monitor the rate of "first-time fix", and this is something to ask about.
Finally, always ask sales staff for details of other school customers, and talk to them, or visit.
There are some two dozen suppliers of photocopiers in the UK. The list below is not therefore exhaustive. Phone to find your local dealer or sales office. Consult local dealers, too, about other suppliers.
Canon Manor Road, Wallington, Surrey SM6 0AJ. Tel: 0181 773 6000
Konica Miles Gray Road, Basildon, Essex SS14 3AR. Tel: 01268 534444
Minolta Precedent Drive, Milton Keynes MK13 8HF. Tel: 01908 200400
Rank Xerox Bridge House, Oxford Road, Uxbridge UB8 1HS. Tel: 01895 251133
Ricoh 1 Plane Tree Crescent, Feltham, Middlesex TW13 7HG. Tel: 0181 261 4000
Sharp Thorp Road, Newton Heath, Manchester M40 5BE. Tel: 0161 205 2333
Toshiba Addlestone Road, Weybridge, Surrey KT15 2UL. Tel: 01932 841600
Danwood group tel: