ICT - Ripping up the rule book

5th November 2010 at 00:00
The ingrained obsession with printing out costs schools a fortune - but the paperless revolution is starting to take hold, as Gerald Haigh reports

Earlier this year, Mike Herrity, assistant head at the 1,100-pupil Twynham School in Dorset, decided it was time to ask how much paper his school was using. His Twitter comment after he had done his research tells it all: "Just done a fag-packet calculation. At Twynham 1,125,000 sheets of paper per year. Blimey!"

That works out at about 1,000 sheets per pupil. Even at the most basic level, that equates to a substantial amount of money.

The cost of one million sheets of paper is around #163;3,000 but that is just the start. Schools buy blank A4 as fodder for their cash-hungry printers and photocopiers. At anything from up to 5p or more a sheet, the cost of all those minutes, newsletters, policies and reports can easily be #163;50,000 or more a year.

When schools are facing increasing budget pressure, that leaves scope for considerable savings, perhaps even enough to protect a member of staff's job. On top of this, cutting down on the use of paper contributes to a school's green credentials.

Mr Herrity thinks so, and for some time now he has been working to rescue some of that money. One way is to persuade pupils and teachers to use the cheapest printing option for their work. To this end he has reduced the number of small expensive-to-run printers and invested in big, high-capacity machines. The result: "High volume, massively reduced costs," he says.

Cutting down on printing costs has also been a priority for Phillip Wakeman, ICT network manager at the 950-pupil Bristnall Hall Technology College in Sandwell, West Midlands. "It's one of our constant preoccupations," he says.

He has also been trying to shift jobs to the cheaper printers. That often means persuading staff to use the school's central reprographics department rather than the handy - but expensive - classroom laser printers, which can be as much as eight times more costly (6p a sheet compared with 0.8p). Although the individual figures are small, when you are printing hundreds of thousands, or even a million, sheets of paper they soon add up.

Long term, though, a better option than switching to cheaper printers is to reduce the amount of printing and copying altogether. Technology plays its part here, because networked and online learning platforms and management information systems can make documents easily available on their screens to everyone who needs them.

"Agendas and background papers for meetings really only need to exist on our SharePoint platform, for example," Mr Wakeman says.

He has his eye, too, on the enormous amount of printing involved in the production of exam coursework, pointing out that a pupil may habitually print off several drafts of a large project. His aim is to keep the work on the network for comments and revisions and for it to only be printed when it is finished.

Mr Wakeman reckons that proper use of the school's learning platform for coursework and other documents will eventually save the school #163;25,000 a year. More if every department adopts best practice.

If that sounds a lot, it is in the same ballpark as figures expected by Mike Herrity at Twynham. The plan there is to move not only internal documents but all parental communications to the school's online learning gateway. Mr Herrity estimates that will save around #163;50,000 a year in printing and photocopying costs.

But the technology is the easy bit. The real challenge is to change ingrained habits. Mr Herrity's current project is to convince parents that there is no need to have printed reports. Alongside this, the school has introduced departmental printing quotas and "stop and think" warnings for large print runs.

Islay High School in the Hebrides is proof that such an approach can reap rich rewards. The school wanted to provide all its 200 pupils with netbooks, seen as essential in a school that uses ICT to overcome its relative isolation.

To find the money, ICT co-ordinator Ian Stuart looked to the #163;20,000 annual paper and printing bill as a potential source of savings. So in 2007 came a determined drive to get all internal paperwork online. Pupils began to do their work straight on to their netbooks, and there were no more paper handouts, worksheets or internal memos. That first year, the bill for printing and paper was cut by 80 per cent.

Since then the policy has become a little less draconian. "We had to be really forceful at first," says Mr Stuart. "A bit like the old-fashioned teacher who didn't smile til Christmas. Since then it has balanced out at about a 65 per cent reduction over what we were using before."

Over four years, the total saving has added up to #163;40,000 in what is a relatively small school. "We've been able to transform our ICT provision," says Mr Stuart. "We're on our second generation of netbooks and we're ready to upgrade again when the time comes."

When it comes to motivation, though, perhaps Alan Richards, information systems manager at West Hatch High School in Essex, has the most positive solution. Starting this term, he is successfully demonstrating that moving forms and documents online actually makes life easier for staff. For example, setting pupil targets is now done collaboratively online, allowing teachers to do this work at home.

"Instead of digging out paperwork, they bring student data up on our learning gateway and the forms are there for them to fill in," he says. And - an important bonus - all the data remains on the system to be examined and analysed. "It means we're working a lot smarter."

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