What is the cost of paper forms in schools?

Paper has served an important role in education for hundreds of years. It’s been an enabler and a multiplier. It’s been a bedrock for schools to inform and improving student outcomes – their core mission.

But paper has been a victim of its own success as an instrument of information gathering.

As it has piled up with our need to communicate, collect, analyse and store more and more data, school workloads have exponentially increased.

Our data suggests that a single child will receive at least 30 forms per year and staff complete at least 20 forms.

So what does it really cost to send home paper forms or use an ill-fitting technology solution?

When schools think of paper costs they usually only consider the costs that they can easily quantify. The truth is that’s only the beginning. These numbers mask the real problem – that educators are taking on the role of full-time administrators.

The human cost

We don’t like to admit it, but every extra piece of paper means more time away from students.

In a recent survey of our school partners, we collected a list of the most used paper forms. These are the ones that involved staff in preparing , distributing, reminding, following up, collecting, collating and in some cases entering, information. Excursion forms, sporting forms, medical forms, record updates, training forms, fundraising forms, parent meetings and more. They were plentiful and often duplicative.

In an analysis of the UK Government’s recent Workload challenge survey, John Roberts revealed that of 43 000 teachers who replied, over 56% reported the single most unnecessary and unproductive data related task was “recording, inputting and monitoring of data”.

Read more: Can automation save teaching?

teacher calling on student in class

Teaching staff in all schools are involved in the paper forms process in one form or another.

  • Preparing the form
  • Preparing the information for the form
  • Distributing the form
  • Managing the follow up and reminder process to have the forms returned
  • Collecting the form
  • Ensuring that the form is fully/correctly completed
  • Collating the information
  • Storing of the original forms

Current paper practices or administration systems that have permission form capabilities are so convoluted staff understandably are turned off them. This adds to stress and workload fatigue.

Roberts acknowledges: “School Management Information Systems (MIS) have glacially evolved since their early beginnings,” to become the source of crippling frustration and burnout.

“Their development focus on breadth has meant that a focus on the needs of the actual user has been left behind.”

Schools want to be seen working on the challenge of staff workload. But technology innovations tend to sit classroom side (where they can attract new students, funding and attention) while applying technology that reduces behind the scenes workload is lower down the agenda.

It’s understandable, given the competitive education market. But it leaves educators, administrators, parents and ultimately, students themselves, worse off.

The financial cost

Paper, printers, photocopying, scanning, labor… and in some cases, faxing!

The pipeline adds up quickly when we count the cost of paper forms. Based on conservative assumptions, modelling suggests that adding basic costs, including labor and storage, tallies up to $16.70 per student.

Digitising and automating these processes could save thousands. Here’s another conservative estimate. A school of 500 students could save up to $8000 a year through smart digitisation. For 2000 that number jumps to $30,000.

The environmental cost

tree drawn on paper

The human cost adds up quickly, in taxing time, energy and patience of educators (and parents). So does the hit to the bottom line.

Consider the impact on the environment.

While some schools are turning to recycled products or techniques to help reduce consumption, the impact on their eco-footprint is usually minimal.

And the heat is on, in the form of externally mandated ‘green’ goals in different educational jurisdictions around the world (and the reporting on those goals… on paper?)

The below figures show the cumulative impact of a school sending an average of 30 forms a year to a single student, at an average of two pages per form.


school paper forms eco footprint

The tide is turning

A Principal recently told me: “I now only buy products and solutions that my staff will use. I am trying to build a culture of innovation and I need the staff to believe that what I promise the technology can deliver”.

While the pressures on the sector are vast and confronting, there’s never been a better time to innovate and take the leap. To survive, schools must be smart about scaling solutions, and letting technology shoulder critical, but crunching tasks that have become fundamentally obstructive within teaching environments.

It’s never just a piece of paper.

Author: Sam Sapuppo

Sam has over 30 years experience in the education sector in Australia and believes in the transformative power of education. He worked for Xavier College, Kew, where he held leadership positions in Curriculum, Deputy Head – Administration and Director roles for Boarding and the Community Relations Office. He is a “Visiting Teams” member for the Council of International Schools’ accreditation process and has held national and state executive positions in the Australian Boarding Schools Association. He specialises in stakeholder engagement, change management and innovative problem solving in the educational setting. Sam is also the consultant advisor for the boarding program at the Melbourne Indigenous Transition School.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *