Gerald Haigh on schools that are soft targets for the unscrupulous
For many years, schools – along with charities and small businesses – have been happy hunting grounds for the cheerful pirates of the photocopier world. Headteachers and administrators, accustomed to dealing day by day with honest colleagues and public servants are too easily bamboozled by smiling sharks with gelled hair and shiny suits.
Now, photocopying is often just one of the jobs done by a multi-function device (MFD) that’s part of the school’s ICT network. Even so, the machine’s often procured and financed in the same way as a straight photocopier, and schools are still signing up to bad and sometimes illegal deals. (Schools aren’t allowed to sign up to finance leases, for example, but they sometimes do so unknowingly.)
As a document on the East Sussex authority website puts it: “We have found that in the current financial climate, schools are being heavily targeted by suppliers as they are seen as a good financial risk and suppliers know that schools are very keen on getting what appears to be good deals and cost reductions.” Never was caveat emptor more apposite advice than here.
'Schools locked into expensive, opaque and often dodgy leasing deals...'
When I started teaching, school photocopiers were rare and expensive beasts. Copies were made singly, using special paper, and the machines weren’t practical or available for routine classroom use. By the time I became a primary head in the 1980s, plain paper copying was well established and photocopying had become typically the second biggest single budget item in a school after staffing. And across the land, young and snappily dressed salespeople sniffed the air and collectively worked out that schools pay their bills on time, are not allowed to go bankrupt, and are usually run by people with little business experience. Tally Ho!
It was a heady and irresistible mix and by the early 1990s many schools were locked into expensive, opaque and often dodgy leasing deals that were difficult, if not impossible, to get out of. Typically, there’d be a five year-lease on a machine with a natural life of three years; it would include a “cost per copy”, paid in advance, on a notional and unrealistically high number of copies, and include a sum for “maintenance” that was dreamed up from nowhere.
Eventually the machine would become troublesome and the nice salesperson would demonstrate and recommend a new and better one on a new five-year lease that would have the remainder of the old lease rolled expensively into it. You, the customer, were now effectively owned by the photocopier mafia like that honey-trapped senator in The Godfather Part 2.
Not that schools were on their own. Charities and small businesses were also fair game, and In 1992 businessman and photocopier contract victim Paul Winner set up his “Campaign to Clean up Copier Contracts (CCC)”. A year later the Office of Fair Trading (OFT) launched a formal enquiry and some of the worst practices vanished, but they often crept back with the details changed. In 1997 New Labour’s consumer affairs minister Nigel Griffiths called, in The Independent, for information and discovered examples of “horrifying” contract practices.
So what's changed? Not a lot...
But that’s ancient history isn’t it? It’s all fine now surely? Well, yes and no. Photocopiers themselves have changed and often morphed into MFDs that do photocopying, computer printing and are scanners as well. As we’ve reported here, and in other places, if they’re carefully bought and managed they can actually contribute to cost saving.
A high-volume, low-cost machine, for example, can be networked so that small, expensive-to-run desktop copiers can be phased out. Similarly, copies can be ordered from the repro department over the network, rather than run off on a classroom machine. (One school told me that the cost difference between ordering online from repro and printing lazily in the classroom is 0.8p against 6.0p!)
There’s also good advice to be had now about the contracts. DfE and local authority procurement officers are well up to speed, and authorities – and education buying consortia – have usually worked out acceptable deals with a handful of chosen and trustworthy manufacturer/suppliers.
Local authorities all have horror stories, too. On Norfolk’s management information site, asset manager Leah Fletcher tells a few of them, including that of the school spending £17,800.00 per quarter, plus copy charges, on 16 copiers. Leah Fletcher writes that had the school used the authority’s arrangement with ESPO (Eastern Shires Purchasing Organisation) it could have had the same number of machines, with the same specifications for £2,955 a quarter: “The overall saving amounted to approximately £15,000 per quarter exclusive of any settlement.
Over the five-year term this would equate to approx £300,000, excluding any settlement.” Just read that again, because frankly it’s eye-watering. This is a real, published example of a school spending £60,000 a year over the odds – more than the cost of two teachers – just on its photocopier deal.Check it here, and click through to "Annex B" for the stories.
There’s really no end to this kind of thing. An East Sussex document quotes an example of a non-approved supplier quoting an attractive-looking heavy discount on the monthly payment that actually ends after two years of a five-year contract. As a result the total cost of the contract is £38,000 more than the county’s approved supplier would have charged.
Before the good and reliable photocopier and MFD suppliers cry out in pain, let me say that of course I know you exist, and I know too that you also suffer from the backlash against the wayward members of your community. But you must also accept that, first, bad practice threatens cash-strapped schools, and second, that the more aware schools are of the bad eggs, the more business will come through your own doors.
What are schools to do?
So what are schools to do? The obvious one is not to rush, and not to be railroaded by the friendly sales person who gives you the slick demonstration. Be assured that if the pitch says, “This is a good deal,” it may, astonishingly enough, be a straight lie except insofar as it applies to themselves.
Then, arm yourself by reading the advice that authorities post on their websites. East Sussex, for example, has a good 13-point list of advice. It’s tailored for its own schools, but is obviously generally useful.
Then talk about your own needs with a knowledgeable procurement person – either in your authority, or with the purchasing consortium that your school or authority uses. It may well be one of the “Pro5” – Eastern Shires Purchasing Organisation (ESPO), Yorkshire Purchasing Organisation (YPO), North Eastern Purchasing Organisation (NEPO) and Central Purchasing Consortium (CPC).
The DfE also has its EPC (Educational Procurement Centre) but the website now carries the news that its service of Procurement Partners, who will visit schools to give advice, is being discontinued from March 2011. On the same page is a reminder that the recent education White Paper stresses how important it is that schools seek value for money.
Gerald Haigh is a freelance journalist and the author of Inspirational – and Cautionary – Tales for Would be School Leaders (Routledge) and Jobs and Interviews Pocketbook (Teachers' Pocketbooks) His regular Five Things To Think About columns can be seen on the National College's Future website.
You can follow Gerald Haigh on Twitter.