From pencils to toilet rolls, schools across the UK have many buying decisions to make when receiving their annual budgets. Then, of course, there are those bigger ticket items to consider, such as services relating to catering, waste management and recycling collections, not to mention the cost of utilities.
Few schools will have a procurement specialist working for them when making these often complex buying decisions, yet they’ll still be expected to consistently purchase quality items or services while achieving good value for money.
With the government’s austerity measures still very much in place, funds remain tight across the whole of the public sector. Schools are more sensitive to this than most, and the pressure to get the right goods and services at the right price has continued to increase over time.
Buying practices in the education sector have been the subject of close scrutiny for some time. In 2014, the Education Select Committee commissioned a research report by the Institute of Education which found that the checks and balances on how academies spent their allocation of public funds were too weak. The report identified instances of potential conflicts of interest, such as the academy headteacher who spent £50,000 on a training course run by a friend. Then there was the MAT chairman and specialist education lawyer who used his company to provide all of the trust’s legal services.
Those and other incidents clearly highlighted then the need for schools to do the right thing when making purchases with public money. A persistent challenge, however, has been the requirement for schools to be scrupulously transparent while doing so. Many schools simply don’t have the staff resources or expertise available to put in place their own EU-compliant procurement processes.
That’s where supply frameworks come in. These provide schools of all types and sizes with a reliable, compliant and cost effective way of purchasing their goods and services, while helping to protect them from inadvertent breaches of complicated procurement rules. Some schools will already use frameworks, but might be more familiar with the alternative term ‘contracts’.
Schools have nothing to fear and everything to gain by using frameworks, but to get the most out of them, it’s helpful to consult a professional buying organisation (PBO). Some PBOs are publicly owned – thereby offering their services for free – and will assist schools with identifying good deals on a range of specialist equipment, building services or ICT, helping them save money and freeing them up to focus on their primary responsibility – teaching our children.
Rowena Thomas is head of category for education at professional buying organisation ESPO; she has worked in public sector procurement for over 30 years, assisting schools with meeting their day-to-day procurement needs and one-off new build furniture and equipment purchases.