In many places, a machine breakdown is a major crisis involving staffroom hysteria and flying lunchtime visits to the school down the road. A measure of all this is the cost. Starting from nowhere 10 or so years ago, the photocopier has become one of the most expensive single budget items - it is not at all uncommon for a primary school of 300 pupils to be spending Pounds 2,000 a year on leasing and running a single machine (not counting paper).
Unsurprisingly, manufacturers and dealers are very keen to keep a foothold in the schools market. Sales staff are competitive and highly motivated, and they sometimes persuade a head to buy something more complicated and expensive than the school really needs, on a lease which has hidden traps and from which there is no escape. In these circumstances it is important for the school to set the agenda.
The heads who are happy with their deals seem to be the ones who have taken time to decide, talking to a range of representatives, seeing sample machines and taking advice from the big purchasing groups and other user schools.
Tony Saffell, co-ordinator of the Derby Inner City Schools Consortium, was recently involved in buying a copier for a primary school, and he began by deciding, with the staff, who would be using it, what features they would need. "We wanted a recirculating document feeder, double side facility, and we felt that a sorter would be an advantage," he said. The more of these features you have, the more the machine costs, and the less time the operator has to spend standing by it.
Tony also wanted to be able to count the number of copies made by different people. Control of the copier's use is important. Teachers like to have free access, but the cost per copy mounts up alarmingly.
Early low-tech solutions often involved a dog-eared notebook which users were supposed to fill in. This failed to work even, according to reliable testimony, in a school staffed by nuns.
One Merseyside head told me that he had decided to restrict use to four named people. Now, there are reliable electronic solutions. For some copiers, each user carries a swipe card, but Tony Saffell felt that a number code system would be better. "You type in a security code and it keeps a record against your name, so the costs can be apportioned." At Canon Maggs C of E Middle School in North Warwickshire, head Rod Steward, faced with the need for a new copier, came up with basically very similar requirements. A major issue for him, however, was accessibility of the supplier for after-care - not just for maintenance, but for general queries about the contract and further deals. "Whoever we dealt with, we had to be able to get hold of them when we wanted. "
Both Tony Saffell and Rod Steward found a good choice available. Mr Steward first contacted his local purchasing group ESPO. He feels that he had good advice and could have made a sensible purchase through them. But, he wanted to cast his net further. "I wasn't going to be hurried. It's a lot of money. "
He looked at specifications very carefully. The number of copies that a school expects to make, for example, affects the choice, because it does not do to buy either an inadequate machine or one which is over-specified for its use. The experience of Rod Steward and others, though, is that the sales staff of reputable firms will give good advice about this.
He was also concerned about copying speed. At the level he was looking at, rival machine speeds vary between about 25 and 30 copies per minute.
"It doesn't sound a lot of difference," he said, "but when the classroom helper is doing an emergency letter for the whole school at the end of the day, it can make a difference."
For him, the choice was ultimately between Toshiba, offered through a dealer, and Canon, who deal direct through local branches. He had a lot of contact with the sales reps, letting each of them know when a competitor was offering better terms. This, he believes, is entirely right, provided that it is done openly and honestly. There is room for negotiation, and schools should be hard and honest bargainers. This means that schools were not very willing to tell me the exact terms of their contracts.
Once a decision has been made about machine specification, and two or three reputable suppliers are in the frame, the final choice can be very difficult to make. In some cases, Tony Saffell points out, it can even be hard to compare costs. "Everyone has their own way of presenting a deal, and in some cases you only have to vary your consumption a bit for the costs to change quite considerably."
One of the factors that Rod Steward took into account was the attitude of the supplier throughout the negotiations - whether the rep always turned up on time, for example, and, in the end, whether it would be possible to see his machine (not just a demonstrator) working in the showroom before it was delivered.
"They don't all want to get the copier out of the box to do that." In the end, based on a combination of quite small factors - a marginal cost advantage, the nearness of the local branch - he went for a Canon copier. Interestingly, so did Tony Saffell.
He was attracted by the international name of the firm, by the fact that "they went to great lengths to make sure we had the right machine" and also by the straightforward nature of their leasing contract.
The most common staffroom cry, after "Milk, no sugar," is "Has the photocopier man been yet?" Copiers frequently break down, and need regular maintenance anyway. A copier without a maintenance agreement is just so much junk.
School copiers live a hard life. There are more users than there would be in a small firm, and they are often in a (literally) tearing hurry. One head told me of a machine that was seriously damaged when a teacher cleared a paper jam by simply grabbing hold of the jammed sheets and heaving them out. (The company decreed that this was not covered by the maintenance agreement and the school had to pay.) A crucial element in negotiating for a copier is how fast the firm will respond to a call-out request. The stated times may vary between three hours and 48 hours. Sometimes different response times are available from the same firm, and, of course, you get what you pay for. You need to check exactly what the call-out times mean. "Three-hour call out" does not necessarily mean that a 3pm call will have the engineer there at 6pm the same evening. The question to ask is how late you can call to get the engineer the same day.
You pay for maintenance, which includes supplies of chemicals, as you go along, usually in the form of a "cost-per-copy" (something under 1p) in the contract. If you keep the machine at the end of lease-purchase, then you can continue to buy maintenance. This will not go on for ever, though, and you will probably not get maintenance of any sort for a machine which is beyond its fifth birthday.
As with so much equipment, the list price is usually meaningless. A copier of the specification bought by Rod Steward will typically be advertised at about Pounds 6,000. How- ever, it could be bought by a school for under Pounds 4,000. Few schools pay cash. It is more sensible to spread the cost over three years and the two major options are lease and lease-purchase.
The difference is that at the end of a lease purchase agreement you have bought the machine and it may well run on - perhaps as a second machine - for a year or two more. On the other hand, once you know your supplier, you may as time goes on have the opportunity to buy or lease a second machine - perhaps a refurbished one, or one withdrawn from a lease in a bankrupt firm - on favourable terms anyway.
In the past, photocopier leasing has been something of a jungle. Earlier this year, the Office of Fair Trading identified a range of dubious practices, including contract periods longer than the life of the copier and hidden steep annual increases in service charges. All of these, and recommendations on fair practice, are included in a free OFT report (see below). The OFT intends to report again next year.
If you deal with a well-known name, the lease is likely to be fair. The main principles are that it should run no longer than three years; that the cost per copy should preferably be a flat, easy-to-understand rate, with no number for "minimum usage" and that there should be clarity about what can happen to costs during the contract.
There have been cases where the small print has allowed the cost per copy to rise by 15 per cent each year over the three years of the contract. Read it carefully, and if in doubt check with the local authority. Do not rush to sign - the firm wants your business and you are in the driving seat.
You could possibly buy a cheap second-hand machine from a local business office and then look for a maintenance agreement either with the original supplier or with an independent firm. You could be very lucky, but there are risks. The machine might be a dud or too old to maintain. Or it may just, of course, belong to a leasing company already.
A refurbished machine, though - or refurbishment of your own machine - is a real option and the market for them is increasing. Proper refurbishment by a reputable dealer usually involves replacing all the mechanical moving parts, the glass cover and renovating the case.
The only significant original parts, therefore, are the electronics, which rarely give trouble anyway. The cost will probably be less than half that of an equivalent new copier, although it will not, of course, be the latest model.
A1 Copying Systems, which does considerable work with Bedfordshire schools, and runs a nation-wide refurbishment service, says: "A three-year-old copier can in most cases be made good as new by a few days' workshop refurbishment. All that is required by users is recognition that after about three years from new, a machine will need a few hundred pounds to be spent for a quality refurbishment."
Among the more marginal operators, are those who will verbally blur the distinction between a new machine and a refurbished one. You must, therefore, always ask whether the machine you are interested in is new, and have this mentioned in a written quotation.
A1 Copying Systems and Supplies, 6 Green Close, Stanbridge, Leighton Buzzard, Bedfordshire LU7 9JL.
Photocopier Selling Practices is available free from: OFT, PO Box 2, Feltham, Middlesex TW14 OTG.
ESPO 0533 657878
Canon 081-773 3173
Toshiba 0932 852755