Low-cost high-tech

Shopping around and careful consideration can ensure affordable ICT acquirement, writes Simon Fry

From  an organisation helping them drive a software hard bargain to a self-made app which might one day make money, educational establishments seeking ICT have money-saving solutions at their fingertips. 

ESPO is a public sector-owned professional buying organisation (PBO) pursuing best practice in procurement, sourcing, supply chain partner support and management and contract management supplying over 9,000 educational establishments nationally.

‘You get what you pay for’ is an adage such establishments should bear in mind when buying ICT according to Claire Edwards, ESPO’s head of marketing and communications. “Schools, particularly academies, are becoming increasingly savvy regarding procurement. They’re hunting around for the best deal but they also need to consider buying compliantly. 

Stung by suppliers

“Years ago, when schools may have been tempted by a cheaper deal, some were stung by suppliers, but purchasing via a PBO like ESPO means this is less likely to happen. We agree with the suppliers all the terms and conditions for our customers and can support them in dealing with suppliers if a dispute arises. Pricing is a huge issue right now – value for money usually wins over cheapness which means, sometimes, taking the product with slightly better features, guarantees or added extras.”

While choosing products with the highest specification is tempting, it is not always the right strategy. “Technology is moving at a blistering pace; many schools are keeping up and some have a policy of one-computer-per-child or have iPads in every class. I think schools have to decide what’s best for the pupils and what will enhance their learning. Obviously, some of latest technology needs to be in the mix but it’s not the be-all-and-end-all if it’s outdated. Teachers should take a sensible approach to what best meets the children’s needs.”

Claire highlights ESPO’s EU compliance is another reason for schools to buy through it, something echoed by Simon Hernes, head of ESPO’s educational field sales team. “Full-term cost, irrespective of spend, is absolutely important but all public bodies, schools and colleges included, spending over £172,000 on IT kit – a figure which is not unusual – need to undertake a full EU tender. This will necessarily involve much time, effort and expense, with the need to place an advert in the European Journal among other places just part of the process. Buying through ESPO means schools are fully EU-compliant, a major time and cost saving.” 

Hands-on experience

Cornwall’s Budehaven Community School introduced the free Apps for Good programme as a club in 2011, giving pupils hands-on experience of the app development process. One of the school’s teams, ShoreCast, won the ‘My Planet’ category at the Apps for Good Awards in 2014 for an app informing surfers of the best locations and times to surf. They are currently working with a professional development agency to develop their app, which will be launched on to the market in early 2015.

Ivan Langton, the school’s ICT co-ordinator is aware of the programme’s benefits and limitations. “The computing curriculum at Key Stage 3 has a lot more content compared to the resources provided by Apps for Good. Therefore there is still a need to have additional resources to enable you to deliver the curriculum, so the savings are not that quantifiable. Also, as a school, we are very good at writing and acquiring our own resources from other schools and teachers and using TES. Cost or savings don’t really factor into why we as a school work with Apps for Good; we do it to engage the pupils and show them the potential of computing in the real world.”

While ShoreCast has yet to bring any financial returns to its pupil creators or their school, some rewards have accrued and the possibility of future income remains. “There was no financial benefit for the school or pupils with winning the Apps for Good award, although the boys in the team all won a mobile phone and while the app will be launched as a free app, if it becomes commercially viable in future, the school and pupils will gain a revenue.” 

Hull’s Victoria Dock Primary School has gradually been increasing its iPad resources over the last four years. With approximately 65 devices shared among 300 pupils, head teacher Denham Kite is pleased with the total cost of ownership benefits brought. “In the very early days I had a play on one belonging to a parent governor and realised they can be used in many ways. The senior leadership team (SLT) all needed to see the potential benefits and we quickly had a shared vision. No other devices were considered and we have bought five or 10 at a time, outright, equipping first the SLT then individual teachers to arrive at our present number. We have stayed within budget and looked at leases but felt a little uneasy about that.”  

If teachers need more devices than usual they can request them on the school’s electronic calendar. While Denham cannot quantify a cost saving to the school he cites the devices’ enormous versatility as bringing identifiable value for money. “They prove their worth so we have found the money somehow. The benefits are the little things: podcasting by the children; they lead in ICT usage; using iPads to take recordings; speaking and using English. We have a tool the children can use and to have more, maybe 10 or 15 in a classroom, would be brilliant. Future savings will come from the fact you can access and produce podcasts, videos and images to avoid spending money on items such as books and paint, music for assembly or sending out letters. This all saves money; you can use the tool for whatever does the job more efficiently and effectively. This said, pen and paper still have a part to play. Pupils still need to learn how to write; we don’t use iPads for the sake of using them.”

With wider choice than ever in the field of ICT equipment, and with technological advances making the threat of obsolescence ever greater, purchasers must take great care to choose the right products at the best price for their school or college. Thankfully, help is at hand – from PBOs, other schools, parents and even pupils – ensuring educators, learners – and bursars – arrive happily at solutions reached. With budgets and present and future requirements considered, ICT buyers can procure with confidence.