There's no doubt that moving to tablet computers is an attractive idea for many schools: they're smaller and cheaper than PCs and offer more hands-on interaction for children. However, as with all technology initiatives, there are complications, particularly when it comes to purchasing tablets in a way that is financially sensible.
As anyone with a smartphone knows only too well, modern gadgets have a way of becoming obsolete frighteningly quickly. Tablets are not immune: new models are rapidly superseded by even newer models and software updates are frequently required. For schools used to PCs that last for many years (and in some cases seem indestructible), this can come as a nasty surprise. So how can you ensure that an investment in tablets is money well spent? The answer may be leasing.
Andrew Truby, headteacher of St Thomas of Canterbury School in Sheffield, opted to lease tablets for his pupils and says the decision has brought numerous benefits.
"The advantage of the lease is that we can spread the cost over a number of years," he says. "At the end of the lease, we can give them back or buy them for a nominal fee."
This means that if the technology hasn't moved on or doesn't look likely to, you can purchase the equipment. But if the landscape has changed, you won't be left with a batch of out-of-date machines and no money for replacements.
Leasing may make some leaders feel a little uncomfortable - in our buy-it culture, renting a product is looked on as poor value for money - but Truby says it is the most effective way of handling the fast pace of technological change.
"The old computers we had were really bulky, with huge monitors. They weren't nice to use," he says. "With the iPads, the children want to use them and find them intuitive. Teachers are often more comfortable using them, too, so although you may have to refresh more often, you're getting much better value for money from your investment."
A sustainable strategy
Another teacher to recommend the lease option is Jos Picardo, assistant principal (and leader of digital strategy) at Surbiton High School in London. The school has 500 iPads in use already and has just placed an order for another 1,000 for September. He says that using a lease option has made this manageable.
"When we negotiated our operating lease, we agreed to pay an amount per device per annum, which became an ongoing cost. We pay that amount every year until we cancel the lease, which is renewable every two years," he says.
"A well-negotiated lease with a properly accredited lessor can be very attractive to schools because they can be up to 10 per cent cheaper than outright purchase. Also, there is a smoother cash flow as the cost is spread, making the project more sustainable."
As well as these up-front cost benefits, the lease option also gives the schools greater flexibility when the contract comes to an end, Picardo insists.
"When the two-year lease is finished, the old devices are returned," he explains. "When the new lease is agreed, the latest iPad or other mobile device can be ordered, which means we're never stuck with a particular device for longer than two years."
The full package
Despite these benefits, Picardo says he does not think enough schools consider leasing as a financially viable option, perhaps wrongly believing that a single purchase up front is more cost-effective. However, he warns that any purchase of tablets will invariably come with costs that schools may not have considered.
"In addition to being stuck with tablets that have spent two years in a demanding school environment, this generally comes with extra admin costs: who replaces broken or lost tablets? Who arranges the insurance? With a leasing package, all this tends to be covered by the deal."
A lease is not the only option, of course, and many schools will still choose to go it alone and source their own insurance and management of devices. However, as these experiences show, the lease option could well prove to be the best way to take your tablets.
Dan Watson is a technology journalist specialising in mobile and tablet devices