The rest of the world is using the Web to make bulk buyingeasier. So why don't schools? Al Constantine reports on the advantages
You can buy books, bikes or CDs on the Internet, book holidays and train tickets. So why are schools - with an enormous burden of purchasing to process every year - so slow to recognise the advantages of the medium?
It will not be long before education gives a whole new meaning to the word e-commerce. Two to three years is the timespan most commonly quoted by those in the trade. There are problems to be sorted out first - such as getting every school equipped with a Web connection and a bank account. But the inevitability of a culture-shift in schoolpurchasing already appears to have been accepted.
John Warwick of Capita, one of the bigger players in the world of edu-business and best known for SIMS, its administration software, is convinced it is only a matter of time:
"There are some problems to be sorted out and, in particular, we need the technology to resolve questions of authentication and authorisation because external auditors are very strict about purchasing and payment systems. But I think this is coming."
The Department for Education has already relaxed one of the restrictions barring progress: all schools must be allowed to have a bank account if they so request. Previously, only secondaries could demand one. And the Government's plans to introduce a much lighter touch for school finance. Last summer it issued a review of the statutory guidance on the topic.
One company, the Consortium in Trowbridge, Wiltshire, a schools supplier since the 1970s, has launched an online catalogue and is reporting initial success. Dudley George, its sales and marketing manager, has been studying the viability of e-commerce in schools for the past three years. "I believe that some very basic common-sense benefits will drive the whole educational market to online purchasing," he says.
One of his customers, Valerie Shetsvon, secretary at Parson Street primary school in Bristol, feels positively about the experience: "We put one order in the week before last for general resources and they were delivered the following day. I found the service easy to use and the prices seem very competitive. But the speed of delivery seems to be the main advantage," she says. Firms using traditional methods can take up to a fortnight to deliver.
Hope Education has launched a similar Web-based service. David Dutton, a director, is also optimistic about the prospects for electronic ordering. "With paper catalogues, it's very hard to keep up with changes in prices and new products; with this new service, we're investing for the future. It's not something that's going to happen overnight, but it can only grow and it offers yet another compelling reason for schools to get connected to the Internet."
Margaret Campbell, secretary at Stenhouse primary school in Edinburgh, has taken advantage of Hope's facility for repeat orders which are logged for individual schools in the computer's memory. "In the past, we've ordered by fax, but you can never be sure it's arrived," she says. "With this you get on-screen confirmation of the order and there's also a vast improvement in the speed of delivery."
Initiatives designed to provide schools with computer hardware have been exclusively concerned with the curriculum, often leaving a gap in the technology available to school administrators. For those who do have it, online buying offers bursars and secretaries much greater control over their orders. They can read immediately on-screen whethr particular items are in stock, alter what they want, re-arrange delivery dates and track the order's progress.
A user password is issued to particular members of staff - usually those in the office - which allows access to the school's account. And despite widespread paranoia about hacking, the Consortium's system is said to offer greater security and tighter authentication than more conventional purchasing methods. There is also an option for, say, subject co-ordinators to draw up "dummy" orders for their area of responsibility, which can be sanctioned by the administrator - the bursar or whoever - thus eliminating the chore of writing or re-typing lengthy lists of equipment.
But the biggest plus, says Dudley George, is that online ordering dramatically reduces the risk of error. In the past, someone has had to transcribe detailed item names and reference numbers so that the wrong stock has often arrived at the school a fortnight later - to the immense irritation of everyone concerned. But such troubles should be over now that customers can see exactly what they are ordering and can simply "click" items into their school's virtual shopping basket.
So much for the ordering - what about paying? There is no online payment system at the Consortium, although one is in the pipeline. But for many state schools, that is academic: the so-called delegated budget remains largely notional, with funds often being held centrally - especially for salaries - and with goods being paid for by finance officers at the local town hall.
It is an obstacle to e-progress echoed by Diana Hampton, head of online sales at Dorling Kindersley, a leading supplier of children's literature to schools. Selling goods on the Internet is mainly based on credit-card transactions, she points out, which is why schools are also proving resistant to electronic methods in buying new books.
Sue Stallard, bursar at Chipping Camden secondary school, Gloucestershire, is happy with the online orders she has made, but she believes that plans for a direct method of electronic payment beg the question of authorisation. There are already strict guidelines to safeguard schools against fraud, she explains: they require that the same person should notgenerate, check and authorisepayment for any purchase.
"In our own case, the paperwork relating to any purchase is checked by the head, the finance clerk and the bursar," she says. It may be fine for a bursar or secretary to be the sole user of the account password, but for any individual to be placed in sole charge of the whole process of purchasing - from generating orders to making payment - would be problematic.
"We have heard of certain financial irregularities in the past and such a system would be very unsatisfactory, besides which the external auditors would have a blue fit if they saw this happening," she says.
Some local authorities are experimenting with creditsystems that will make it easier for schools to buy online as well as generate their orders on a website. Lancashire County Council has developed with NatWest bank a purchasing card system.
"In effect, it's a credit card, just like the one you might use from home," says John Farquhar, Lancashire's manager of exchequer services. "The card can be used by the school secretary to make online purchases, the bank pays the supplier and then we pay the bank."
It has been successfully used in a dozen schools since September and is ready to be made more generally available.