Paper-free for the planet

Despite the evident cost to the environment, schools are still too reliant on paper-based communication, argues Paul Hughes

UK schools get through vast quantities of paper every year, printing letters and other correspondence for parents. While this may not appear to heavily impact school budgets in comparison to purchasing ICT equipment or restoring buildings, primary schools use an average of six reams of paper every week, with secondary schools using 15 reams. This equates to almost 400,000 sheets per year and that is on letters alone.

Whilst the paper itself is relatively inexpensive, when you then factor in the photocopying, printing, postage and packaging costs for every parent, suddenly the total becomes extortionate. It can cost schools around 5p for every page printed or photocopied. When this is amplified across the thousands of sheets printed each day, this quickly equates to several thousands of pounds every year – and this is before postage costs are factored in to the equation.

The majority of paper used by schools often won’t be recycled. This is costly to schools and to the environment, and it fails to teach children the importance of sustainability. While it will always be an essential part of the education system, schools need to reduce their reliance on paper-based communications and seek alternative methods, which can provide a simple and cost-effective way of cutting unnecessary spending.

Despite the availability of technology providing school-home communications, schools are continuing to use paper-based processes out of habit, unaware of the benefits online systems can bring. One school recently surveyed admits to spending just under £100,000 on posting letters home to parents every year. Schools need to readdress traditions and take advantage of the functionality new methods offer if they are to save in the long-term.

In today’s increasingly digital era, there are a number of alternative ways to provide a more cost-effective approach than paper-based communications including email, text, online payments and app notifications. All of these methods enable schools to send parents updates, reports and reminders quickly and simply, keeping them informed of their child’s progress or any areas for improvement. Schools can see whether messages have been received and read as parents are able to respond immediately. Gone are the days of relying on children to deliver messages that end up crumpled in book-bags or planners for months on end. Communication streams running directly from school to parent minimise the chance of messages being lost or missed, meaning parents are always kept in the loop. Instant communication is fast becoming the norm all over the world, with corporates using real-time communications with clients. If it works for other sectors, then the same should be applied to schools, enabling them to connect with parents simply and immediately too.

In addition to the direct costs associated with printing, photocopying and postage, something which is largely overlooked is the time staff spend collating and distributing letters. On average, school staff spend between five and 10 hours every week printing information to send home. Sending the same information to parents via an online method, such as email, is far more efficient, giving staff extra hours to work on other, more beneficial tasks.

With budgets continually tightening, schools may understandably be hesitant when it comes to investing in communications software when there are so many other demands on school finances. But with a short-term investment comes long-term savings. On average, primary schools can save £3,000 per year, with secondary schools saving £7,000. Opting for digital processes not only dramatically reduces paper, printing and all the associated costs, it also has a more positive impact on the environment and saves a huge amount of staff time.

Schools will always require a certain amount of paper; this, however, is about breaking habitual paper wastage and looking for new ways to minimise costs while maintaining an effective way of communicating with parents. The question schools should be asking themselves is: can they really afford not to?

Paul Hughes is managing director of ParentMail

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