When ICT budgets are slashed it’s time to use the technology to find savings. Gerald Haigh introduces a new series of 'cost cutting' articles
Photocopier picWhy print money when your photocopier can scan?Good ICT costs money – that’s true enough. But it’s equally true that, properly chosen, deployed and used, it can more than pay for itself. In fact, to judge by some of the figures we’ve seen, that’s something of an understatement.

Are you aware, for example, that the average secondary school uses up to 2 million sheets of A4 paper annually? We’re talking here about using ICT to achieve the kind of five-figure sum that could save a member of staff’s job.

Despite some technologists thinking that the technology revolution is over, the fact is that we are only at the beginning, and lessons that were quickly learned in the world of business appear to be taking longer in education. So even when schools appear to have made wise choices in ICT, they may not have achieved best value if they were not prepared to change they way they do things.

It’s an argument well explored by Ian Yorston on the Association of Teachers and Lecturers website in his polemic “Why Schools don’t need ICT” (Ian is also the author of the popular An Unreasonable Man blog), although some readers may have taken it too literally. So how do schools make the most of their investments in ICT?

A leading promoter of the message that “ICT can save your school money” is Ray Fleming, Microsoft UK Education Marketing Manager. It was a theme that Ray heavily emphasised at and around BETT 2010, not only from the Microsoft BETT stand but also in his blog, where he eventually collected together a list of “Top ICT Cost Saving Tips for Schools”.

Every one of them was backed up from the actual experience of one or more schools, and when they’re added together they end up showing that the ICT department of a secondary school of 1,000 students has the potential to save £350,000 from the whole-school budget over three years. For a primary school, the figure is £90,000.

As you’d expect, where there are particular products involved, Ray goes for Microsoft. Why wouldn’t he? But read the examples closely and you can see that many of the principles involved are generic. Many, too, demand not only technical know-how from the network manager and the technical team, but creative and assertive action from the school’s leadership. In fact when you look at any of the schools that are at the cutting edge of using ICT to increase efficiency and promote learning, you find that twin-engine powerhouse is at the root of its success. (I nearly wrote ‘is the secret of its success,’ but obviously there’s nothing secret about it.)

You can read all of Ray’s examples for yourself. But we hope they’re going to be matched by other kinds of example. Many of you will want to see the case made for cheaper, or open-source software for instance, and that’s bound to come into the discussion.

One of the most obvious savings schools can make is on communications and probably the biggest communication cost is for paper. It's hard to accept that an average secondary school will use up to 2 million sheets of paper a year – a dreadful waste. On a personal note, have you noticed that paperwork is generally heavier to carry around than your technology? And the combined weight of the two is really bad news for your vertebrae.

Cut your use of paper and you'll cut costs immediately. Back in January 2008 Ian Stuart at Islay High School, Scotland, set the school's annual £20,000 paper bill (bigger schools use more) in his sights to release cash for ICT for students (see Guardian article). Even back then the figures were eye-watering. And a really simple decision – converting a photocopier into a scanner – opened the door to new ways of doing things.

As we get closer to the annual “learning with ICT” mega event at London’s Olympia, BETT 2011, you’ll find that many of the key schools ICT providers are already planning a “more is less” pitch for this January's (12-15) event.

As time goes on we’ll look more closely at specific cases revisiting some that have been quoted before to see how they’ve held up, and seeking out new ones. The fact that we’re doing this, too, will surely motivate readers to weigh into the discussion themselves either with cost-saving examples of their own, or with comments on those already going the rounds.

Remember, though, what the general principle is here. It is to demonstrate that the effective use of ICT won’t just be reducing the spend on ICT. It’ll actually be having a positive effect on the whole-school budget – reducing the impact of cuts, possibly saving peoples’ jobs. (Surely a £25,000 annual saving – and that looks quite achievable - must help when it comes to figuring out whether redundancies are on the agenda?). What people are interested in is what works, and what they have to do to make it happen.

BETT 2011