Procurement advice for Multi Academy Trusts

When it comes to making important public sector purchasing decisions, what does best practice look like? Peter Melville, chief operating officer at SWECET Multi-Academy Trust, shares his thoughts

The past decade has seen significant strides in the support for school procurement. Coming from a position where academies evolved into the autonomous situation of being able to choose their own suppliers rather than those selected by their local authority but with a void of support, budget holders are now in a much more fortunate position of having a wealth of support to find suppliers for their schools. The question now for school leaders is ‘what is best practice?’ when it comes to making important public sector purchasing decisions.
Peter Melville, chief operating officer at SWECET Multi-Academy Trust (MAT) and founder of Incensu, shares with us his thoughts on best practice when it comes to school procurement.

Level of spend

As with any personal purchasing decisions the level of cost outlay for a particular item, project or subscription will require a different level of research and time investment. It’s the same when planning spend within a school or MAT. The Department for Education (DfE) considers spend below £10,000 as low, medium as between £10,000 and £40,000, and high as anything over £40,000, although schools may have their own individual procurement rules for this breakdown.

Low value procurement

One beauty of academies and MATs is that you have full control over the suppliers you choose to service your establishments. This allows the freedom for schools to make the best purchasing decisions for low value items and contracts which can be done very quickly and simply by many people across the organisation.
Finding suppliers can be as simple as a using a catalogue, searching the National Register of Education Suppliers at Incensu to find recommended local trades, finding an advert in a reputable magazine, doing a quick google search or grabbing some consumables from Amazon. It should be recognised that while low value procurement generally falls below the £10,000 threshold, a graduated approach to sourcing suppliers would be best practice towards the higher end so that credentials are checked or, following previous competition, set companies used for repeated low value purchases.

Medium value procurement

While academies have the benefit of autonomy the caveat here is always needing to know which suppliers provide best quality, are better value for money and have the best reputation in the UK education sector. While not spending very high sums of money on these medium value products and services, the combined effect of making poor buying decisions across multiple purchases on a daily basis can have significant impacts on the overall annual school budget.
When exploring the best suppliers in this category of spend and above, an important place to look will be the National Register of Education Suppliers at Incensu. Here school budget holders can search for products and services, read ratings and reviews from other schools and view ratings on quality, value and reliability. While you may have seen an advert in a reputable education magazine or met suppliers at a trade show, having one place to go to then check credentials from fellow school leaders really helps to boost confidence in the procurement process. The reviews of other school procurement professionals can be invaluable and forms the foundation of best practice in school procurement in the UK today.

High value procurement

When procuring goods and services of high value, schools not only need to be satisfied that the cost of such are reasonable but also that the terms and conditions attached are also suitably appropriate. School leaders need to be assured of the right legal protections associated with high value purchases and contract agreements. Best practice here would be to go through approved framework agreements of which a range are provided by a number of different organisations. Suppliers available through framework agreements have already gone through the tender process and been selected by the framework providers for their competitive price, quality and service. It saves schools time and effort making it easy to either choose from the list of pre-approved suppliers or use the list to run their own mini-competition to see which is the best fit for that particular school.

In the lead up to any change in supplier for significant high value contracts such as IT, catering, cleaning, photocopiers, cybersecurity, transportation, whilst going through a framework or competitions will be the plan, it is highly recommended to attend conferences and events where you can meet company teams face to face. Often a great deal can be gleaned by meeting suppliers in person that you cannot begin to get from a website. It may help to get a feel for how a particular supplier can support your school or MAT, how they’ve worked with similar institutions or how you can achieve savings through purchasing for multiple schools. While trade shows may be a great way to get around multiple suppliers in a short period of time, there are now other events giving suppliers and school leaders much more targeted time for discussions, so it’s well worth exploring a range of face-to-face options.

Overarching principles

Whichever route taken to procure goods and services for the schools across my MAT, one of the overarching principles is that of confidence. How confident am I in the suppliers that I am trusting to deliver what will ultimately impact the safety and safeguarding of pupils and staff across our organisation? How confident am I that they can support a modern, impactful learning environment? How confident am I that they can provide the quality and best value within the budget for the Trust? To get to that level of confidence, I always want to know more about a supplier in the context of the UK education sector. I’m looking for their experience, reliability, their reviews from other large multi-academy trusts, accountability and their investment with the UK education sector in the long term.
My inspiration for what can be achieved across our estate may often come from the glossy articles in reputable magazines such as Education Business or from the impressive exhibition stands at a trade show, but I then want to see behind the marketing. It’s the reason I set up Incensu over a decade ago. I wanted real, sector-led, information about suppliers that can help inform procurement decisions. Reading the chalk-face reviews about the experience that other schools have with suppliers, viewing accreditations, seeing which frameworks a supplier is pre-approved with and seeing school ratings for suppliers all help to instil confidence when spending public funds. I want Incensu Registered Suppliers who I know have a profile on the National Register of Education Suppliers where I can view all this and more. It makes suppliers more accountable and I have confidence knowing that I can share my own experiences of suppliers to help the future confidence of other school procurement professionals.
Having knowledge that the Incensu platform has a wealth of tools for suppliers where they can display all these important, confidence-building accreditations and awards, craft collaborative purchase offers specifically with MATs in mind, share case studies and demonstrate their transparency within the sector helps not only to boost my own confidence but also empowers me to be able to justify spend to stakeholders.

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