Helping schools get value for money

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Last year, the Department for Education (DfE) published its Schools’ Buying Strategy. Commercial Director Jenny Williams tells us how the DfE is supporting schools to improve their buying of goods and services

Over the past year, the Secretary of State Damian Hinds has made it clear he is committed to ensuring every pound is spent effectively in schools. Key to this is a need for robust financial planning to make sure schools are getting the most from their budget. The DfE created the Schools Commercial Team to support schools in doing just that. Working alongside schools, we are identifying ways in which we can help them reduce spend on non-staffing costs and invest those savings into improving pupil outcome.

The DfE Schools Commercial Team are a team of dedicated procurement and school business management professionals, working to help make good procurement easier for schools, to save staff time and, ultimately, make the best value purchases. Having scoured the marketplace, the department has identified a range of value-for-money deals for schools, as well as providing guidance, useful templates, and, in our pilot School Buying Hub regions, one-to-one support for School Business Professionals [what we commonly refer to as School Business Managers – Ed.] 

Supporting networks

I don’t need to tell you how important an effective SBP can be in delivering great value to their schools when they are empowered to lead by governing boards and their executive leaders. 

The Schools Commercial Team has recruited a number of former SBPs with recent first-hand experience of the role and we are harnessing this to make our offering to schools as practical and helpful as possible. But we also want to support and empower SBPs, and part of the team’s role is to work with SBPs to encourage the formation of new SBP networks and to support existing networks to become increasingly effective drivers of change.

We know that each network operates very differently from another and some are more active than others, in the same way, membership can also vary. There isn’t a ‘one-size-fits-all’ and the make-up and functions are developed to meet the needs of the members. The frequency they meet, whether this is face-to-face, via teleconference etc. also varies.

In May we launched the network directory and accompanying guidance to help SBPs find a network or set one up if none exist in their area. At the time of writing, we are aware of approximately 150 SBP networks, and we are sharing information to support them to increase their visibility and link up with other schools in the same area/region. 

With the help of those who have set up and/or currently lead networks, we have recently published a toolkit designed to give practical advice and guidance on setting up new networks and sharing useful tips and good practice. This is part of a wider ambition for networks and the team will be expanding the support available over the coming months.  

Visit gov.uk/government/publications/join-or-create-a-network-for-school-business-professionals for more information.

Save time and money

Over the past 18 months, we have launched initiatives that can help schools save time and money on both daily running costs and larger scale purchases, including savings on a wide range of common school costs, including:

  • School utility bills
  • Photocopiers, printers and print costs
  • Interest-free loans to help schools be more energy efficient
  • ICT Products and services
  • Agency fees for supply teachers.

The savings available through switching to better deals really do add up. We believe if a school were to use the DfEs recommended ‘Deals for Schools’, the average secondary school would have saved £24K in 2017/18. DfE was recommending six deals during this period and a further 60 are being reviewed for recommendation this year offering schools greater opportunity to make even more savings.

We are also making it easier for schools to take advantage of these potential savings. Having assessed each one, we’re now pulling them together in one place on our website, regularly updating this to keep it up to date with the latest and best deals available for schools. Search ‘buying for schools’ on gov.uk to find guidance, templates and money-saving deals recommended by the DfE.

Safer procurement

Understandably, schools and academies tend to use suppliers and services with whom they have long-standing relationships. However, we know that this can be one reason why schools are not getting the best value for money – industry standards change, technology improves and incumbent suppliers aren’t always willing to pass this on to their existing customers. Schools can use the DfE services to benchmark their existing deals to test whether they are still good value.

Where schools identify that switching supplier can save them money, we want to make that easier. My team is working directly with suppliers and public sector buying organisations (PSBOs) to make sure you have easy and quick access to information, with clear and transparent options to inform your buying choices and make that transition less daunting.

Many suppliers offer end-to-end customer support for you to contact and speak to an expert for advice and guidance.

Schools’ Buying Hubs

We also recognise that sometimes a bit of one to one support makes the difference. So in February this year we launched a pilot initiative to test a new concept of Regional Schools’ Buying Hubs. The hubs provide direct access to procurement access via helpdesk, email and live chat. Schools can also request on site support and both Hubs have a field-based team to support this along with attending local events and network meetings.

The initial pilot is supporting schools in the North West and South West, with independent and objective procurement expertise and advice on your more complex purchasing requirements.  The initial feedback on the hubs has been great and we are developing plans to roll these hubs out nationally if they prove successful. 

The hubs are supporting schools with: 

  • Expert advice and guidance on buying via the website, helpline or face-to-face. Procurement experts within the hubs will come out to your school to provide advice and guidance
  • Template documentation for buying
  • Help with complex contracts in areas such as catering, cleaning, premises and technology services
  • Local collaboration, where there is an opportunity to reduce costs on areas such as learning resources, ICT and administrative supplies buy schools joining together
  • Contract management support.

There are of course areas for development and we are grateful to all the schools who are providing feedback and helping us shape the initiative for national rollout. It’s not too late for you to get involved in the pilot. This is a great opportunity for schools in the North West and South West and I would welcome your support to encourage your school to sign-up. You can register by visiting consult.education.gov.uk/schools-commercial-team/927e1fd1

Agency Supply Teachers

One particularly area where schools have told us they would like our help is with supply teacher agencies – particularly where there is little transparency of fees and costly temp-to-perm fees. We have been working with the Crown Commercial Service to develop a commercial framework for agency supply teachers to support schools with getting value for money when using agency staff, and this is now available at ccs-agreements.cabinetoffice.gov.uk.

This requires agencies to adhere to standard levels of practice, including on the use of temp-to-perm fees. As well as supply teachers, the framework also includes the provision of other agency workers such as teaching assistants and cover supervisors.

We know that all these initiatives, and those that we have planned, are only going to support schools if they are what schools want and need. We are really keen to ensure we listen to the sector and therefore we have recruited a network of school business leaders who are helping improve our existing and shape future initiatives.

This network provides input to and feedback on deals, guidance and market conditions. We are using that insight to shape our projects ensuring we produce what schools want, saving them time and money.

We are always looking to expand this insight and if you or your colleagues are interested in joining our user network we would love to get you insights as well. Just email schools.commercial@education.gov.uk to get yourself connected.

Looking ahead

We’ve made a lot of progress over the past 18 months but we also feel that we’re just getting started and recognise there is a lot more we can do to support schools.  Over the next year, we have an ambitious programme of activity including:

  • Widening the covers we offer alongside the highly rated risk protection arrangement (RPA)
  • Improving digital access to our help and support services and deals 
  • Developing the schools buying hubs nationally pending successful pilot 
  • Increasing our range of recommended deals that meet schools’ needs.

Finally, we want to make sure that our offer is meeting the needs of your school so we want to give you and your schools the opportunity to be actively involved and help us to shape and deliver these improvements. If you would like further information, have any questions, would like to know about the latest deals, or how you can get involved, please search ‘buying for schools’ on gov.uk or contact us at schools.commercial@education.gov.uk.