There’s no doubt that selling into the education sector is a tough job. All those Workplace360 spoke to unanimously cited the budgetary pressures currently faced by schools, colleges and universities as a formidable challenge.
Despite total spending on education in the UK standing at £116 billion per annum – or 4.6% of national income – real hardships are being felt across the primary, secondary and further education sectors.
Says ExaClair UK Marketing Manager Lawrence Savage: “A recent study by the EIS – Scotland’s largest teaching union – highlighted that 70% of Scottish teachers have been using their own income to buy essential classroom supplies. Additionally, there has been a noticeable rise in requests from academic establishments for equipment and material donations.”
It is a huge market, stresses Rob Abrahams, Managing Director at specialist school furniture supplier Morleys. “There’s an estimated £11 billion backlog of work needed on existing British schools, with £500 million of this related to furniture, fixtures & equipment.
“However, budgets this year have been hit hard by the 5% increase in teachers’ pay – which makes up at least 80% of a school’s total spend. The government is pumping vast amounts of money into this sector, but it never seems to be enough. In addition to UK sales, educational supplies is a £30 billion+ export market and growing.”
Simon Port, Head of UKI Market at Promethean – a supplier of audiovisual (AV) equipment for this category – remarks that this lack of funding often manifests itself in establishments pushing the lifetime of their existing tech further.
He adds: “While the end of the warranty period has traditionally been the catalyst for a technology refresh, there’s been a noticeable move towards using more dated products for longer, despite recurring faults.
“Moreover, as schools try closing budget gaps, this has altered how AV goods are purchased, with leasing and finance agreements growing in popularity. At the same time, indications are the tide is starting to turn, and a more positive outlook is evident. Energy prices are falling and customers are growing in confidence about future spend.”
On top of budget constraints, there may also be challenges related to legislation. Victor Stationery Sales Director Richard Smithers says educational institutions are subject to regulations that can impact the adoption of new technology. These include but are not limited to data privacy laws preventing certain digital tools or platforms from being used in the classroom.
Labour disputes may have a bearing on the sector too, he notes, which in turn affect those companies selling into it. “If schools or universities are closed due to a strike, it can delay or even cancel purchasing decisions or the implementation of new technology products.”
Despite significant headwinds, there is plenty of scope to broaden the supplies range and increase sales. Integra Business Solutions, for example, saw a 40% sales rise in the education sector in Q1 this year.
Arts & crafts and stationery are still key product categories, followed by exercise books, facilities and furniture. However, the dealer group’s Director of Marketing, Sian Haskell, warns the market will remain tough for the rest of 2023. The additional funding announced for the next two years will be swallowed up by inflation, plus rising energy and staff costs.
Looking ahead, she believes technology will fulfil an ever-greater role in schools following a shift from paper-based resources to digital processes. This will have a corresponding impact on traditional classroom supplies, for instance pens, notebooks and filing solutions.
Smithers agrees, citing the increasing use of technology to track and monitor learning as a significant trend. It includes using online platforms, mobile apps and virtual reality tools to provide pupils with interactive experiences.
Related to this is personalised learning, where students learn at their own pace and in ways that cater for their individual needs and interests. This develops skills such as empathy, self-awareness and relationship building, which are essential for success in both personal and professional settings.
In addition, social-emotional learning is gaining traction. Notes Smithers: “The number of autism spectrum disorder diagnoses and special educational needs cases in schools is increasing, so it’s important to ensure the paper products we supply can support the full range of diverse requirements.
“With dyslexia and Irlen syndrome – which affects visual processing – afflicting 10-15% of the population, tinted papers have become essential for aiding concentration and relieving the visual stress symptoms associated with autism and dyslexia.”
Explaining further, he adds: “The glare of white paper or patterns and black/white contrasts can bring on headaches, fatigue and anxiety, causing printed lines to blur or appear to move. With many children remaining undiagnosed, it’s crucial every classroom has a range of tinted colours available to ensure all pupils’ needs are met.”
Pukka Pads also provides a range of Irlen-related items, with each Irlen pad available in five different shades, including a simple test on the inside of each one to determine which colour paper is best. Global Sales Director Alex Bonarius says when it comes to education, there is a challenge to meet an accessible price point, but the company is determined to maintain quality and design equally. “Our products have always been loved by students who often stay loyal to our brand through to later life,” he adds.
The rise of EdTech
Educational technology (EdTech) has made inroads within learning establishments for many years. Unsurprisingly, the pandemic accelerated its uptake, with educators rapidly adopting technologies that enable new learning methods, either remotely, on-site or in a hybrid mix. The number of visitors (30,000) and exhibitors (600+) at the recent Bett UK show clearly demonstrated the intense interest in EdTech.
As Logitech Education and B2B Channel Manager Matt Waring explains, while the primary goal of EdTech is to promote engagement, boost interaction and enhance teaching, it still needs to be simple, intuitive, enjoyable to use and fully classroom-tested. Crucially, technology must be easy to deploy as teachers don’t want to spend the first ten minutes of a lesson trying to set it up.
Hardware and software compatibility across a vast range of devices is just as essential to cater to different user requirements. Hybrid learning also means students must receive an equal experience regardless of location, ensuring they can participate just as easily as those attending in person.
States Waring: “The huge variety of digital tools now offers learners increased flexibility and empowers them to find their own voice. Traditional classroom settings can be enhanced with videoconferencing solutions, cameras and microphones. Whiteboard cameras, for example, allow remote participants to join in with a lesson. Thanks to AI functionality, they also present those in the room with a better, clearer view of the board via their devices. Additionally, lessons can be recorded and played back later.”
He points to the use of digital styluses – such as the Logitech Crayon or Pen – which enable students to express their creativity collaboratively while allowing everyone to work on the same document simultaneously. Alternatively, a headset could be utilised to eliminate background noise and improve focus or to pick up voices more clearly when using an app for dictation or language lessons. “eSports and gaming are huge growth areas and a way for students to develop skills like teamwork, leadership and strategic thinking through play,” he adds.
Promethean’s Port says schools react very favourably to demonstrations of EdTech before committing to purchasing new solutions, reporting that the company has recently taken this concept to another level with its ‘Experience the ActivPanel 9’ programme for its latest interactive flat panel display. “Essentially, the first model bought is heavily discounted by up to 60%, meaning the initial purchase is far more accessible. This enables them to really put the product through its paces before hopefully committing to further full-priced sales.”
Much like in the workplace, the AV/IT convergence trend is on the rise in educational settings. In fact, says Port, the company is witnessing some schools move away from computers completely as interactive flat panels deliver greater capabilities. “Connecting handheld and student devices to front-of-class interactive displays and accessing cloud-based networks directly all contribute to more flexible teaching and learning.”
Victor Stationery’s Smithers agrees the opportunities in the EdTech sector are vast, with the potential to improve learning outcomes, enhance teacher effectiveness, and increase accessibility to education. AI and machine learning, he notes, are examples of technologies that can be leveraged to create personalised experiences and identify areas where students may be struggling.
However, he cautions, there are challenges with EdTech, such as ensuring it’s accessible to all – regardless of socio-economic status – and does not replace human interaction in the classroom. Furthermore, some educational bodies are returning to written exam methods of testing in order to prevent AI from being used to complete a student’s piece of work.
The importance of physical paper products is underlined by new evidence, according to Smithers: “A study of university students has revealed that writing on paper can lead to more brain activity, improving information recall an hour later. Separate research has also shown the complex, spatial and tactile experience associated with writing by hand is vital for improved longer-term retention and essential for exam success.”
Finding your USP
Accessing the education category presents its own unique issues. To be successful, dealers will require innovative ways to develop relationships and highlight the benefits only they can provide (read Positive education on page 12 for Egan Reid’s take on the sector).
Morleys’ Abrahams is keen to emphasise that “you do need to know what you’re doing” after observing some dealers dabbling in this area supplying establishments with inappropriate items.
“There are over 30,000 schools in the country, and they’ve all got individual requirements. It’s important to understand what these are, build up relationships and establish a level of trust. Buyers choose classroom equipment very differently from how they would kit out the staffroom – they want the right items that will do the job correctly and last for many years.”
According to Nemo Office Club Managing Director Tim Beaumont, local dealers are increasingly getting a foot in the door by offering a unique personal service, nimbly adapting to customer needs and providing cost-effective benefits.
For example, some dealers act almost like school caretakers in the way they manage supplies while carrying out on-site maintenance tasks. The best operators also offer full installation services when selling furniture or equipment such as bike sheds and playground apparatus.
Says Beaumont: “This ability to make the education establishment’s life simpler is essential. A dealer needs to recognise the challenges it faces – a crucial one is the much-publicised budget constraints, with spending necessarily prioritised for fundamental items, namely, textbooks, facilities and teacher salaries.
“Convincing decision-makers to invest in innovative new products can be an uphill battle. One tactic is to start small, build relationships and have the patience to grow sales slowly. This can begin by being a convenient local source for topping up essentials such as toner, copier paper, pens and notebooks when needed. Doing this efficiently and reliably provides the chance to demonstrate the capabilities needed to be the supplier of a wider range of items.”
Further advice for resellers comes from Norfolk-based Eastpoint Global, a specialist distributor of teaching aids and classroom resources. Marketing Manager Alfie Temple says many dealers just seem to be a copy-and-paste of the next guy down the road, particularly with their online offering. “Schools need to see that you are willing to talk to them about bulk purchases, receive assurances they will get everything they require – ideally in a single order – and even better, delivered to exactly where they want it in the facility.”
While reiterating the complexity of the education market, Abrahams firmly believes the rewards for independent dealers successfully operating in this space can be considerable. “There’s a lot of opportunity. However, it’s beneficial to partner up with a specialist supplier that knows what they’re doing and can help overcome any hurdles.”