An account of the year

3rd January 1997 at 00:00
Twelve solar calculators and a partridge in a pear tree? Gerald Haigh finds out how two schools accounted for last year's annual budget and what they will be spending their precious cash on this year

The first thing that struck me about the orders and invoices at St Giles Junior in Warwickshire was just how many of them there were - great thick ring-binders, with piles of paper setting out demands for everything you could conceivably think of, and several more besides. A clock for the staffroom - Pounds 9.99; board rubbers; rounders balls; handwriting pens; fabric dye; mops. Even the swimming lessons at the local baths called for a purchase order and invoice (January to March, Pounds 54.45).

One of the orders was, in its way, historic. It was an invoice from Nuneaton Signs, a local company specialising in sign-making and painting and it read, "Remove sign. Remove the word 'Middle', replace with the word 'Junior', and replace the sign. Pounds 33." There it was, the end of an era, the passing of a particular vision of how Warwickshire's children should be educated - conceived in the early 1970s; killed off 25 years later. A snip at Pounds 33.

Some of the orders had a deceptively random look about them. In May came a list of maths equipment adding up to just over Pounds 160 - 12 solar calculators at Pounds 4.19 each; a height measurer at Pounds 18.80; 30 compasses at 40p each and so on.

Bob Jelley, the head, is quick to point out, though, just how carefully such spending was planned. "It's not plucked out of the air with people saying 'I'd like to try that'. All the buying and ordering directly serves the curriculum planning. Nothing is bought that doesn't do that. We can't afford it any other way."

This is a school which chooses to spend heavily on staff, and so budgets in other areas are severely curtailed - each national curriculum core subject has Pounds 400 a year; each foundation subject Pounds 200 (less than Pounds 1 per child) to cover books and equipment.

So, when it becomes apparent that children can no longer do what is expected of them because some equipment is worn out, or when a new area of learning calls for new equipment, only then does the co-ordinator dip into the precious budget.

At that point, advice comes from the school's admin assistant who, in the words of the head, "combs the catalogues for the best value".

There is a constant outflow of small orders which do not fall into any curriculum slot - 40 Vileda cloths at 54p each, and 10 mopheads at 80p for the cleaners is typical. "They have a budget, but they are so reluctant to spend it," says Bob. "They are aware that money is tight, and they want it spent on the children. I have to persuade them to order things."

Another regular entry is for small repairs, such as light fittings and washbasins. "The age of the school now is such that all of the toilet fittings are showing signs of strain - cracks spreading from the bolts in the floor and so on."

Among all of these small orders, the big ones catch the eye. In January last year the school bought 250 reams of photocopier paper for Pounds 550. It just failed to last the year - though there have also been some gifts of paper from local firms.

In many schools, photocopying is allocated to departmental budgets, often by using a restricted access device on the copier itself. At St Giles copier and paper are freely available to staff. "Some schools worry about use of the photocopier. I don't want to get into pin numbers and swipe cards. Does anybody cost the time involved in all of that? Frankly I'd rather organise a couple of bingo nights to pay for some more paper."

In the spring, there was a water boiler for the staffroom - a five-litre Zip Hydroboil at Pounds 370. This cuts down waiting time in the precious morning break.

The biggest spend this year, though, has been on IT - two Acorn A7000 computers - Pounds 2,270 from Warwickshire's own Educational Computer Centre (WECC, since closed). Mention printers to Bob, though, and he tears his hair. The school has two Canon 610 Colour Inkjet printers (Pounds 316 each) and an Epson Stylus Colour Printer at Pounds 339. Bob feels that these printers are not really built with school use in mind.

"Each model has its own specific shutdown procedure that you have to remember, and its own idiosyncrasies. And since WECC closed, support has been a major problem. I really want you to quote me saying that the Epson Hotline is a complete joke - I have sometimes tried it for up to two hours on and off and got absolutely nowhere. When people say they want schools to be like the private sector, is it this kind of business they want us to be like?" In a junior school of 250 pupils it is not all that difficult for the head and the governors to keep an eye on spending and to check the quality of what is delivered. In a bigger school, the problems are magnified, and yet a closer look shows many of the principles to be the same.

I talked to John Foley, deputy head of Coundon Court Comprehensive in Coventry about this, and discovered, for example, that the delegation of budgets to departments works in much the same way as it does in a small school, except that it has to be done in a more formal way.

"We expect them to spend three quarters of the budget by Christmas, and then to spend all of the remainder before the end of the financial year," he says.

A particular difficulty arises, he suggested, when an individual or a department wants an expensive piece of equipment and senior managers lack the specialist knowledge to know whether the need really exists. The answer is to keep focused on the development plan and not to be diverted from it.

"We had the opportunity, for example, to buy - at a good price - a language laboratory, which was being removed from another school. In the end not only did we ask ourselves why the school was getting rid of it, we also realised that information technology was leading away from the concept of the traditional language lab."

What of next year in these two schools? John Foley is looking forward to progress on two major long-term projects - a sports hall and an arts centre. Bids for lottery funding are in hand for these.

At St Giles, one of the dearest wishes of the head and the governors is for the freedom to replace all of the school's furniture. The laminated wooden chairs have lasted well but are now starting to split. Classroom tables been treated with remarkable respect by the pupils, but are looking tired none the less.

Two of the school's teachers went on a European Community-funded visit to Scandinavian schools in the autumn and came back with photographs of beautiful wooden furniture - good chairs, shallow wooden desks with lift-up lids. "That's what we want - beech effect and tubular metal. Desks with lids so we could get rid of the trays and trolleys. But to do the whole school would be the best part of the cost of a teacher for a year," says Bob Jelley.

It is an old dilemma, of course. As Bob puts it, "Reading is our priority at the moment, and it's very labour intensive. I've seen no evidence that good furniture improves reading. The most we can hope for is to get a local handyman to renovate the existing furniture at about Pounds 2 a time."

What St Giles wants from a supplier is good quality at a sensible price - and a quick response. "By far the biggest supplier to St Giles School is the Eastern Shires Purchasing Organisation, ESPO, which has developed a reputation for prompt delivery," says Bob. "As a general rule we try them first. They have quality in mind and they are under no illusions about the reality of school life."

* ESPO, Leicester Road, Glenfield, Leicester LE3 8RT. 0116 265 7950. Fax is 0116 265 7886.

* St Giles buys lots of urgently needed stationery items, cash and carry, from the local branch of Office World, which has 50 branches. Freephone enquiries 0800 5000 24. Freefax 0800 245000.

* Canon printers came from XMA, Wilford Industrial Estate, Ruddington Lane, Wilford, Nottingham NG11 7EP.

* Epson printer from Microbits, 221 Longford Road, Coventry.

* The St Giles photocopier is a Toshiba, leased from Copyfax, 7 Eagleswood Business Park, Almondsbury, Bristol BS12 4ET.

* Other items include technology consumables (pipe cleaners, wire, gears) from Technology Teaching Systems, Holmewood Field Business Park, Holmewood, Chesterfield S42 5UY.

* The kind of classroom furniture that St Giles staff and governors would like - good quality wood and tubular steel, with shallow lift-top desks - may exist in this country but neither they nor I have spotted it in any catalogue.

* Most catalogues still offer moulded plastic chairs, and plain tables to be used with separate tray and trolley units.

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