THE ADVENT OF ICT across the curriculum is beginning to place a whole range of new resource demands on schools that usually fall to the bursar/business manager to manage.

The advent of ICT across the curriculum is beginning to place a whole range of new resource demands on schools that usually fall to the bursar/business manager to manage. The introduction into schools of more than one dedicated ICT suite has occurred in parallel with the siting of clusters of computers in other places throughout the school – from libraries to classrooms.

There has been a realisation that existing desks designed for non-computer work are unsuitable for new, high-tech uses, and an appreciation that schools need to look to integrated ICT desks as a solution that makes as much ergonomic as economic sense.

Unfortunately for applications requiring computers, many schools still predominantly use desks that:

  • have been expensive to purchase
  • are difficult or impossible to maintain
  • are locked into restrictive IT purchasing choices
  • have a short product life span.

So what are the key issues to bear in mind before making key purchasing decisions to ensure that you get best value for your school?

Key factors to consider

  • Desks within schools get very heavy use and children and young people are renowned for their ability to find design flaws and test products to their maximum. A first key criterion, therefore, must be durability. What kind of tests have the desks on your shortlist been through and what kind of warranty does the company offer? (three- to five-year warranties should be standard). It’s worth having a good look over any potential purchases to look for cheap surfaces with edges that will chip and flake. Any company should be able to quote the tolerances for which the desks have been designed, with accompanying official safety standards. You should ask whether the desks have been tested and certified to internationally recognised standards.
  • Fitness for purpose is also essential and it’s vital to avoid designs that look as though they have been adapted from other uses. Tell-tale signs of this include runners that might have been in a cutlery draw, or supports that interfere with computer cables and clearly come from poorly adapted desks.
  • It’s vital not to ignore ergonomics. Consider the age and needs of the end users – are they small children, teenagers, adults or a mixture of all them? Do they have any special needs that need to taken into account? Desks come in all shapes and sizes, and it’s essential to match the design to the end user as precisely as possible.
  • Consider also the profile of the companies on your shortlist. What track record do they have of supplying schools like yours? Can they provide references or contact details so that you can get the real story from these schools? (It’s usually revealing to approach a school that has had desks installed for a year or so, to see if any problems have emerged). A good indication that the company has your best interests at heart is that it listens to what you need rather than trying to sell you what it has.
  • The serviceability of desks must also be born in mind. Can you get parts for the next five years? What kind of costs will be involved? What is the worse case scenario and what will it cost? It’s also important to get some assurances about how quickly the company will respond to service and repair requests.
  • Adaptability is also vital. Can you chose and fit the IT equipment that you want to buy or use existing kit? The last thing you want is to purchase a set of desks that only works for your existing ICT setup – we all know how volatile the world of ICT can be and you could find yourself landed with an obsolete computer suite if your hardware requirements change.
  • Cost is clearly a prime consideration, but you should also ensure that you factor in the warranty and after-sales service that the company offers. Be aware of hidden costs, and scrutinise the small print before signing up. Leasing is another option to consider, with associated pros and cons; some companies specialise in such arrangements.
  • Added value is also worth considering. While some companies will specialise in desks, others are capable of helping with other related product needs. This can help to provide a more integrated solution that in the long run can incur less cost. The company may also offer consultancy with the package to assess very precisely your needs – for ICT desks and other school furniture. This can be very helpful and can save a lot of time and effort, especially if it is done by a specialist familiar with schools’ needs.
  • Funding ‘ICT furniture’ – some schools wishing to update ICT desks and other furniture have managed to secure grants and company donations to ease the financial burden. The key to making this happen is to tie these infrastructure improvements to a specific project which will have specific curricular or extra-curricular benefit. Companies may make a cash donation towards the refurbishing of an ICT suite in return for their name being placed on a banner outside the room, or for company access out of school hours.
  • Finally, make sure you ask around within your local authority and further afield to make contacts and get the details of the most trusted companies. However, remember that this is a rapidly changing aspect of education and there are many new players in the market, so you should not neglect the newer companies, who may just be able to offer you the discount you need in order to establish their place in the education world. Best value is about exploring these new opportunities, as well as falling back on reliable friends, which can sometimes lead to complacency.