The new media centre with its shiny red work surfaces and state-of-the-art, multifunction machines is the hub for printing and reprographics at Homewood School in Tenterden, Kent. Behind a wall-length window on the world, it offers pupils and staff a service to rival any commercial firm: not only high-speed, high-quality printing, duplicating, scanning, finishing and binding, but also two large professional wide-format printers for artwork.
Contrary to what you might think, the centre also saves money on the annual reprographic requirement of nearly 1.5 million copies of worksheets, lesson plans, school information, parent letters, reports, art and so on. The list is endless and expensive for a school with 2,200 pupils and 250 teaching and support staff.
Hidden costs can run into thousands - at Homewood an estimated #163;17,000 is spent on peripheral printers alone. Just by streamlining with print management software and having fewer, strategically sited printers, copiers and multifunction machines, companies like Canon promise up to 30 per cent savings, with environmental benefits of as much as a 40 per cent reduction in carbon emissions.
Monitoring every print job and each piece of paper, Canon's UniFlow 5 software records who uses each school machine and when, how much is printed and even print density. The management system also alerts users to maintenance issues and sets printing limits. Documents can be scanned securely into the school's information management system while scanned work can be sent to a pupil or staff email.
Machines are defaulted to duplex for double-sided efficiency, with A5 printing halving costs again. In fact, Homewood saved more than 300,000 sheets in the centre's first three months.
No longer hidden away in a back office, the reprographic team is on hand to supervise and help the pupils crowding in at break and lunchtimes to print off their work. One in five print jobs is left uncollected in out-trays, so printing has to be authorised by a swipe card or password to avoid such wastage. Each pupil has fixed credit on their card, while teachers have a budget enabling their department to limit printing and encourage accountability.
With its "think before you print" campaign, another supplier, Ricoh UK, has found some schools are keen to take advantage of biometric technology - using pupils' fingerprints to authorise printing, and saving on the cost of lost cards while improving security.
Marketing manager Helen Berrentzen says: "We have to change behaviour - controlling printing so pupils can't just randomly print off documents - while giving them a more convenient system."
Ray Fleming, Microsoft UK's education marketing manager, also believes "savings are as much about a change in mindset as printer technology". He urges schools to invest in a learning platform, saying such investment is not only good for teachers, pupils and schools, but also saves printing costs as more management, sharing information and teachinglearning is done online. He estimates a learning platform can help save #163;25,000 on a typical secondary school's printing budget of between #163;65,000 to #163;70,000.
There are numerous learning platform providers to choose from, including LP+, Frog, Fronter, Moodle and Studywiz. Alistair Johnson, business development director of LP+, has first-hand experience of the savings as a governor at his child's primary school. "The governing body doesn't get a single piece of paper - all documents are put up on the learning platform in a secure shared area ... whilst saving and tagging documents online is more efficient in time and money than paper files."
Capita Children's Services uses Microsoft's SharePoint as portal technology for its learning gateway. It offers password-protected online access for parents, keeping them updated on many aspects of their child's progress such as attendance and achievement, and even on those letters that end up "lost" at the bottom of a school bag.
At Lancaster University, educational technology expert Don Passey's research into learning platforms also factors in saved costs in administrative and teacher time for collating, filing, chasing permission slips etc. "I still go into staffrooms with paper piled up on the side and I wonder how much of it is necessary," he says. Mr Passey calculates that a two-form entry primary school could spend #163;38,000 annually, with #163;4,000 spent on parent communications and governor documents alone.
Sometimes direct electronic communication is what's needed. Providers include ParentMail and Teachers2Parents, as well as Parentlink, a newer provider to UK schools. Val Cameron, head of Park Lane Primary and Nursery School in Cambridgeshire, is encouraging parents to use emails and SMS as well as the learning platform.
With 500 pupils at Park Lane Primary there is potential for significant savings, but Ms Cameron says half the parents still want "a piece of paper to put on the fridge door ... We're still a very paper-driven society and what is happening in many schools at the moment is a dual system".
With this in mind, she still sends out a monthly newsletter to parents using the newly leased colour photocopier in the main office. Printing centrally has proved much cheaper than the classroom colour inkjet printers - nearly halving annual costs.
Rob Taylor, sales director of XMA Print Solutions, says a "baseline assessment is a good place to start" because, he adds, "as many as 95 per cent of schools have little idea of their existing printing and reprographics".
Describing the company as "vendor independent", his aim is to tailor a package to a school's needs and budget from what is available on the market. He says schools need to make a realistic projection across the academic year - volume, type of printing, size (black and white, colour, A3, A4 etc). Unlike XMA, Mr Taylor says some companies will not refund unused volume while excess printing and copying is chargeable. Schools need to consider peak times and future needs as well as whether they outsource printing such as their prospectus or provide a service to businesses and the community, he adds.
Go green, save money
Large companies such as HP and Ricoh are increasingly addressing environmental concerns, particularly in the public sector. HP promises energy savings of up to 50 per cent on some of its machines, while Ricoh has a recycling policy by which hardware is "given a second life" by being stripped down and reassembled on the production line. Such machines are 25 per cent cheaper, with guaranteed reliability, although they are not necessarily the most up to date.
For smaller schools, buying outright may seem the best option - but cheap high-street printers can be a false economy. "Even when stretching budgets, it's worth spending a bit more on a machine which is fit for purpose as it will last longer," says Phil Jones, sales and marketing director of Brother UK.
Often supplying smaller schools, mainly primary, inkjet printers tend to be best in the classroom, where teachers need less printing, says Mr Jones, while the back office, with its high volume, demands faster laser machines.
The ultimate savings in the future could well come from the "paperless school" with online working, communication and management. The side effect of this classroom revolution in schools - like Islay High School with its 220 pupils on a remote Scottish island - can be astonishing. In its first year, the school's rigorous "no printed handouts or memos" policy saved 80 per cent on its paper and printing costs.
This has since averaged out to a more workable 65 per cent - an annual cash saving of #163;10,000. In Microsoft's "paperless environment", Mr Fleming also rarely prints anything, but he says: "There are still visiting headteachers who look around and ask: 'Where is the paper?'"
Home school communication