Borrowed time

2nd June 1995 at 01:00
A Venetian mask, a collection of fossils or an array of Victorian bottles may be materials you suddenly can't do without - for a week or two. Why buy when you can obtain a wide range of exciting items from loan services? Peter Berry explains the advantages.

In a recent TES article Roger Frost and David Sayers outlined an "ideal" shopping list of resources for key stage 2 science. Although it was undoubtedly useful and in many ways practical advice, the piece highlighted the knotty question of how to obtain classroom resources. On the subject of anatomy, readers were advised to "get a full-sized (model) human torso".

This seems sound enough until you realise that following this recommendation can cost a school between Pounds 500 and Pounds 2,200 - admittedly an extreme example, but there is no avoiding the fact that it costs a lot of money to buy this type of resource material.

I work for a large resource loans service based in the north of England. During the past two years we have introduced a charging system for our services, and have generally received a very positive response from schools. However, I speak regularly with schools who tell me that they are building up their own resource collection rather than hiring material from us.

At first sight this would seem eminently sensible from the school's point of view. Once purchased, items are available for use when they are needed, with no need to book them from an outside agency. However, there are a number of hidden problems with this approach.

First, there is the need for a "volunteer" to manage the school collection. Even a small number of resources, whether they be microscopes, fossils or Victorian glass bottles, need to be recorded and catalogued. Records need to be kept of where things are, who has borrowed them, and who had them last, when they are inevitably discovered to be missing.

Second, there is the need to find a secure store. Not every school has the large amount of room needed to house a collection, and it is surprising the demands that even a modest number of objects will make of cupboards, shelves and boxes.

Third, there is maintenance. Things break, scratch, crack and get damaged in any number of ways. So somebody - and this volunteer will be a very busy person - will have to arrange for repair and, if need be, replacement. It is also a strange but true fact that objects deteriorate while in storage, even when they were perfect when last used.

Finally, we have the real big one - finance. Any purchase represents a sunk investment, ie, one that is made in order to pursue a particular activity and which therefore must work hard to earn its keep. Is it really cost-effective to spend even tens of pounds on items if they are going to be used only once every one, two or even three years? Ask the question again if the sum amounts to hundreds of pounds.

What is even worse is that you are subject to the curriculum vagaries. It only took the removal of the study of the Stuarts at key stage 2 to turn many a prized collection of reproduction artefacts, prints, costumes etc into expensive, interesting, but largely irrelevant historical ephemera.

And here is the crux of my argument, and a plea to schools to look at what their loan services can offer. In return for having to order and pay for the hire of your resources you free yourself from the worry of finding storage space, from "volunteering" a member of staff to look after a steadily deteriorating collection; you can forget about repair costs and you need not worry about your hard-earned investment being written out of the national curriculum Orders, as that will be somebody else's problem.

A group of schools once asked us to source and package a set of resource items based on material that we have for hire in our own collection. The resources were to be retained for use within the group. They were somewhat surprised to find that their substantial funds would not buy all that they wished. In the end they ordered a slimmed-down, but nonetheless informative and high-quality series of objects. For the same amount of money they could have ordered the full set of material to their original requirements and borrowed it for a four-week period for just 4 per cent of the cost of outright purchase!

If you are thinking about hiring resources, here are some of the points you should be looking for from any service that you use: o Range and depth - most collections have now expanded on the traditional areas of history, art and natural history, and should be able to provide resources for study right across the curriculum o Forward booking - a service should offer you the option to book well ahead, so that you can be certain of what is coming to you right at the start of your curriculum planning process o Pictures - how do you know what a Venetian festival mask or a Mayan Huipil will really look like? The better services should be able to provide you with pictures in advance of the loan o Quality - find out whether the resources are cleaned and maintained and what steps are taken to ensure that they arrive in good condition and, importantly, make sure it is made obvious what you have actually borrowed, so it is easy to identify what you must return o Transport - some services expect you to fetch and carry and some will deliver and collect, usually charging extra. This latter service is necessary for bigger resources - unless you have a school minibus and a "volunteer" free - and it is often the larger objects that provide the greatest impact and stimulation for pupils o Cover for losses, breakages and theft - ensure the service has clear procedures and hire fees include comprehensive insurance cover o Value for money - evaluate the true cost-effectiveness of the service. If you can buy the resources on offer more cheaply than hiring them, then do so!

Peter Berry is business manager for ERS, the Educational Resource Service, The Resource Village, Crigglestone WF4 3LB. Tel: 01924 240999

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