In a December 2015 speech at Burton upon Trent David Cameron said he wanted to make local authorities running schools a thing of the past. This announcement came as part of the Conservative Government drive to increase the numbers of academies and free schools throughout the UK; giving schools more autonomy to make their own purchasing decisions.
Here British Educational Suppliers Association (BESA) Director General Designate Caroline Wright tells BiP Solutions reporter Julie Shennan how schools can make the most of this autonomy.
Historically education sector funding came straight from the Government to each of the education authorities, who would in turn route a proportion of the funding to its schools, keeping some back for services such as transportation and school meals.
While this model is still dominant among primary schools and some secondary schools, it has been overturned by secondary academies and free schools, which have control over their own budget.
The 2015 Independent Schools Council statistics recorded the highest number of pupils registered at its schools, since its records began in 1974, so it has never been more important for education officials to invest wisely.
Certain considerations should be made when education officials are looking to invest; the first of which is whether the requirement must be put out to tender.
To decide this, officials can use the threshold values on the Cabinet Office website, which generally apply to product values over several hundred thousand pounds.
Next schools must consider the total cost of ownership (TCO) of a product or service, which is a financial estimate, intended to help buyers and owners determine its direct and indirect costs.
Rather than just considering the purchase price of a product, TCO looks at the complete cost including the initial purchase price, performance, fit for purpose, warranty, service and support, maintenance, the expected life of the product and even disposal.
The through-life value of a product can often be sacrificed when schools focus on short-term savings. One of the British Educational Suppliers Association’s (BESA) recent findings was that a number of schools were trying to save money by buying cheap, pre-packed furniture; underestimating both the health and safety implications and the long-term cost of replacing lower quality furniture.
This oversight led to BESA lobbying for the British Standard for classroom furniture, BSEN1729.
Now BSEN1729 ensures that tables, desks and chairs made for school use are properly shaped, sized and developed to prevent long-term damage to children’s backs, helping them to concentrate on learning without suffering discomfort.
Impact on education standards
The classroom furniture scenario shows the value of procuring goods that are specifically designed for educational purposes. To do this, schools can buy products from experienced education sector suppliers, whose credentials can be reinforced by case studies, detailing school contracts they have previously worked on.
Case studies can often be found on suppliers’ websites, and then cross-referenced by buyers contacting the schools themselves.
BESA also helps schools research suppliers’ backgrounds by providing two years of backdated accounts for suppliers who are part of the BESA registered list.
Checking these records allow schools to ensure their suppliers have good financial foundations and are unlikely to leave products unsupported.
Another method of decreasing the TCO of schools goods and services is leasing. Schools often find that they can afford to obtain goods on lease that they could not afford to purchase outright, for example photocopiers, minibuses and hardware for ICT.
Before considering leasing equipment, it is critical that schools understand the legal and financial issues involved in entering into a financing arrangement for procurement purposes.
Leases provided by an ethical company can support access to a broad range of classroom equipment. They can enable schools to invest in the resources they need, when they need them, regardless of whether full initial capital is available.
Leasing can also allow schools to have more confidence in buying products that may have a higher initial cost but have been found to carry a lower TCO.
Sadly, the existing Government policy on leasing insists that schools use operating leases rather than the more cost-effective finance leases.
BESA has been working with the support of the National Association of School Business Management (NASBM), the Finance and Leasing Association (FLA) and BESA members to lobby the Government to change its policy on leasing in schools.
Training and support
Finally, I will leave you with possibly the most important piece of advice we can offer: never lose sight of the importance of budgeting for training with all product investments. When budgets are tight, rather than paying a relatively high initial cost for associated training, schools can easily be swayed into feeling they are saving money by simply buying the hardware. Of course a lack of training and support can result in aspects of the products’ potential being unrealised, which in turn incurs unnecessary expenses.
All this advice is common sense but for schools that are under financial pressure and busy with raising standards, quick, poor decisions are easy to make. Many schools now have bursars, employed purely to save the school money by making wise, considered investments. BESA applaud this appreciation of the importance of careful investment planning and our members are always open to offering advice to schools.
For further advice on public sector procurement keep following the BiP blog…