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Schools can maximise budgets through the power of collaboration


Peter Melville from Incensu

Peter Melville explains the power of collaboration in Just 4 SBMs Magazine. How goods and services are procured by schools is changing dramatically. The internet is now the most important source used by school leaders to find out about prospective suppliers – 62 per cent of respondents used the web to find out about companies that they could work with, while 57 per cent of school business managers preferred to go online to source trusted education suppliers.

01 December 2013

When my school became an academy in 2011 there were some significant and positive benefits.

The main one, certainly from my perspective as business director, was that the school was given control of its entire budget and for the first time we had real freedom to use our funding in a way that was precisely tailored to the needs of our pupils and the community.

Many schools around England have since gone down the academy route - at the last count 3,364 academies are now open – and more are certain to follow.

But the risk for academies - and indeed all schools - in these fast changing times is that financial devolution and greater autonomy can make it harder for schools to buy services and goods in a collective way.

That makes it more likely for schools to deal with suppliers on a one to one basis rather than as part of a purchasing collective. The result is that many schools will pay too much for the suppliers they use.

The need is clear: schools should collaborate more on purchasing in order to have the purchasing power that will help precious budgets go further. They also need to share information on which suppliers are the best to work with. It’s time that schools were in the driving seat when it came to procurement.

These issues have long been recognised by school business managers. There are lots of localised examples of groups of business managers working together in a collaborative way to get better values from their purchasing decisions. I have been an advocate for this approach for a long time. There are also buying groups that have developed in recent years to give schools access to better procurement power.

But we are still in a very fragmented and fractured school procurement landscape. It is a situation that needs to be addressed through schools working together and sharing their procurement intelligence so that schools can act together rather than alone.

These issues and needs came to the fore in the first annual National School Procurement Survey (NSPS13). The survey was carried out in the summer by Incensu, a national register of businesses reviewed and rated by schools. I developed the register with the help of SBMs from around the country.

Almost 100 business managers and headteachers from around the country responded to the survey, which aimed to gain the first proper view of school procurement practices and issues.

More than 60 per cent of respondents said they didn’t have complete confidence in the buying decisions made by their schools.

Although almost 40 per cent of respondents said that they were “completely confident” in the procurement decisions made by their schools just over 60 per cent were only “fairly confident” or “slightly concerned” about the buying of goods and services.

Schools achieved best value for money in their buying decisions “most of the time” according to 78 per cent of respondents, while eight per cent said that best value for money was “not always” achieved. Just 14 per cent of respondents could unequivocally say that their school always achieved best value for money in its procurement.

The findings revealed that the issue of confidence was underpinned by what respondents regarded as key procurement challenges. According to respondents the five most significant challenges were:

• Lack of funding (66 per cent)
• Keeping abreast of the latest policies and legislation (41 per cent)
• Accessing grants (35 per cent)
• Getting enough information about companies before using them (31 per cent)
• Finding companies available to work with schools (19 per cent)

While the survey revealed that school buyers face significant challenges I believe that there is also cause to be optimistic about the state of school procurement.

The survey showed that the overwhelming majority of headteachers and school business managers (94 per cent) are willing to recommend, rate and review companies with experience of working with their school in order to help other schools with their buying decisions.

How goods and services are procured by schools is also changing dramatically.  The internet is now the most important source used by school leaders to find out about prospective suppliers – 62 per cent of respondents used the web to find out about companies that they could work with, while 57 per cent of school business managers preferred to go online to source trusted education suppliers. A minority of respondents liked direct sales approaches.

The survey is revealing, showing school procurement to be a rapidly changing and increasingly important area of responsibility for schools today.

The question now is how to increase this confidence. It is reassuring that the challenges outlined in the Department for Education’s recent review of school efficiency and advice guide (see panel) chime with the concerns expressed by respondents to our survey.

Now that government, schools and suppliers have a shared understanding of the current challenges facing school procurement we should work together to ensure that schools find it easier to get the best possible value from their spending decisions.

Next steps:
How can schools work more closely together to improve their procurement practices? Share your views and experiences with Peter Melville at melvillep@incensu.co.uk

Full results of the first annual National School Procurement Survey, together with a free white paper analysing the issues raised by the survey, is available at www.incensu.co.uk

Source: Just 4 SBMs Magazine

Incensu says:

View the white paper: How to improve the procurement process for both schools and suppliers here.

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