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Best value for schools label

Finance Director Hayley Dunn shares her advice for implementing an effective school buying strategy

There are many issues that schools face when it comes to buying strategy and managing finances. These include: rising costs, deficit budget(s), apprenticeship levy, stagnant income, pressure from increasing employee costs, procurement, and numerous options when it comes to suppliers.
In January 2017, the DfE produced a document called the Schools’ Buying Strategy. The premise is that it will help schools save over £1bn a year on £10bn of non-staffing costs by 2019-20. The strategy focuses on three core areas: skills and relationships, access to best value, and smart consumers.
Vital tools, guidance and support are already available for schools. These include:

  • Efficiency matrix tool – based on pupil attainment and income.
  • Top 10 planning checklist – information that school leaders and governors should be aware of in fulfilling their part in good financial management: staff pay as a percentage of total expenditure; average teacher cost; pupil-to-teacher ratios; class sizes; teacher contact ratios; proportion of budget spent on the leadership team; three- to five-year budget projections; spend per pupil for non-pay expenditure lines compared to similar schools; school improvement plan priorities and relative cost of options; list of contracts with costs and renewal dates.
  • Guidance on best practice.
  • Case studies.
  • National deals – available for energy supply, risk protection arrangement (RPA), MFDs, ICT for Education and Microsoft licences.
  • Salix loan scheme for purchasing energy- efficient systems.
  • Benchmarking Report Card.
  • Financial health checks structure.

Key initiatives for the future

The DfE plans to develop the service further through peer-to-peer support, a regional advice service and access to better deals. There has been a recent advertisement for a new position within the DfE that will help to support and encourage new school business management groups. It is also planning to: create a Network Leaders’ Forum; provide assistance with complex buying (through initiating a pilot school buying hub); and expand the support for better deals for schools by launching a pilot scheme for purchasing tools.

Network, network, network!

Attend workshops, attend conferences, join a local group (if there isn’t one, consider setting one up!), connect with co-workers, join an association, subscribe to online forums and embrace social media. If you are looking for a local SBM Group, then NASBM has a handy list online at nasbm.co.uk. When you attend conferences, take a stash of business cards with you, swap them with other professionals and expand your network.

Five ways to improve your buying power

Collaborative working. Sharing staff with other schools can work really well with specialist roles, such as Business Managers, sports teachers and language assistants. If you pursue this as an option it is essential that you put in place a service level agreement, so that all parties are clear on costs, timings and scope.

School business improvement group. Initiate your own school business improvement group, which can be really effective when you work with others who are of a similar mindset and work in similar schools. It’s also a great way of providing peer support and challenge. I would suggest planning the meetings and agreeing the topics in advance so that people come prepared. You will find that the meetings go off in different directions as you explore topics, but it is useful to have an initial outline. 

Take minutes. These are really useful to refer back to. If/when more people join the group then you can share the previous minutes and add in comparisons from the new participants. Please don’t let this stop you going to conferences and groups – they are just as important. What you can get from a small working group is detailed comparisons. For example: comparing prices for something as low cost as a ream of paper to the contract price for MFDs; a comparison of policies and procedures; templates; staffing structures; and job roles. There are so many opportunities for identifying and implementing improvements. 

Upskilling. Teach employees new skills or employ a facilities assistant or caretaker to do minor on-site repairs. This will reduce repairs and maintenance costs from call-out fees, as well as maintaining the good fabric of the school building(s).

Training. Access procurement training. This doesn’t have to be for the business manager (or equivalent) – instead, consider whether there is another member of the team who would like to develop their skills, such as a member of the admin team. Ensure there is someone in the team who has the knowledge to undertake complex buying or access support from an external company.

Smarter buying

  • Consider the best options for buying – is purchasing outright better than leasing or hiring?
  • Use long-term curriculum plans to explore opportunities to save money, to assist the admin team in planning, and to generate ideas for grant applications.
  • Ensure that you have stringent procurement processes in place. Get all proposed contracts reviewed by a suitable commercial legal expert before signing.
  • Accurate and regular contract management is essential. Software products are available to help do this. Keep a track of the essential details of contracts, licences and subscriptions. Details should include length of contract, notice periods, end date, cost, who is responsible, and outline of service.
  • Remember that after-sales contract management is important, too. If you aren’t getting what was outlined in the agreement then highlight your concerns and take appropriate action.

For more information

About our expert

Hayley Dunn is Finance Director at Codsall MAT and is a Fellow of the NASBM. As a certified accountant, finance is her passion. Hayley believes there is great potential for income generation and fundraising in schools and loves being part of projects that deliver value to pupils, whether by providing money, resources or life experiences. Hayley is an avid Twitter user: @ShropshireSBM, and blogs at ShropshireSBM.org.