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Partner with Other Schools to get Better Deals from Suppliers by Buying in Bulk

March 13, 2018, 10:48 GMT+1
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  • Partnering with other schools to get better deals from suppliers isn’t always easy, but the potential savings can make it worthwhile for some, says Stephen Morales…
Partner with Other Schools to get Better Deals from Suppliers by Buying in Bulk

If your school belongs to a MAT or diocese, you’ll be part of a formal structure that has an imperative to ensure that areas such as procurement and site management work across a group of schools.

Those schools that aren’t already in a formal collaborative arrangement of some kind can use a commercial framework, whereby a broker assembles a group of providers and uses scale as leverage, by in turn bringing together a group of schools in need of specific services.

An obvious example is energy. A broker might bring five schools together and present them to a number of different energy suppliers. The latter may then enter into a competition on price, resulting in cost benefits for the schools.

Outside of that, another route schools can take is to come together in a soft arrangement and create a memorandum of understanding between themselves. Somebody will need to be appointed as a ‘procurement hub lead’ or similar to manage the relationship, after which representatives of the group can make contact with providers and attempt to drive down the group’s costs.

We’ve worked with some schools that have seen this as a great idea, and welcomed the savings that they stand to make. In practice, however, we’ve often seen that mobilising a school to take the lead in such situations is very challenging.

Soft versus specific

That said, there are some examples across the country of school groups that have made this approach work. There’s one such group in the South Lakes, where the geography has effectively forced several schools into working closely together and forming connections with local business, with the result that they’ve driven down their procurement spend.

The schools in this case were very isolated, to the extent that without coming together, they wouldn’t have been able to benefit from national procurement opportunities. The challenges they faced, common to many rural schools, meant they had to be innovative in order to remain sustainable.

While we at the ISBL would be wary of prescribing a particular route, we’re of the view that any school seeking to be as efficient as possible should explore what opportunities there are for local collaboration. For example, you could approach five local primary schools and enquire about the possibility of you collectively procuring grounds maintenance services together – though if the grounds maintenance your school requires is particularly complex, you might find the other schools reluctant to, in their view, take on the burden of contributing to the upkeep of a difficult site. If, on the other hand, your site mirrors those of your partners, then there may well be potential opportunities for sensible savings.

From 1 to 10

There’s one example we’re aware of, where a secondary school in Herfordshire provides facilities management services for 10 primary schools. Because the secondary has the capacity, staff and machinery, they’ve been able to take on the human resources risk and investment in heavy plant machinery that would otherwise have fallen on the primary schools.

Moreover, the secondary school’s offer to its partners isn’t simply ‘Here’s a person who will carry out caretaking duties for your school.’ Instead, it’s ‘Here’s a service – even if a caretaker is off sick, we’ll always deploy somebody to your school. And we can do that at a fraction of what it would cost you to do internally.’

In these sorts of cases, schools will be looking at significant savings. Rather than employing 10 grounds maintenance staff at £20,000 each, the schools can be looking at a combined contract valued at between £30,000 to £40,000 – that’s a potential saving of £160,000.

Schools in this type of arrangement can therefore certainly benefit from working with each other, but things start to fall down when a tipping point is reached. In the previous example, if five out of the 10 schools in that partnership decide they don’t want to participate any more then the arrangement becomes considerably less robust, since it relies on an agreement across all 10 schools to continue using the service. From the secondary’s point of view, the value of providing the service will only be realised if there are enough schools participating.

Strengths and weaknesses

Working arrangements like this are quite unique, in that there aren’t many schools currently using them. We hear about the success stories, because the people involved tend to shout about what they’re doing, but it’s not indicative of an emerging trend.

It’s schools with ample leadership capacity that are best placed to innovate in this area. Schools with existing leadership pressures typically lack the resources and emotional energy needed to do it. That’s unfortunate, because the schools that could that potentially benefit the most from such arrangements will likely struggle to step back from their day-to-day operations and set something up.

If a school wishes to embark on an initiative like those discussed here, then the starting point is to examine the strengths and weaknesses of your organisation and reflect on what you can and can’t do. The ISBL has a capacity audit tool that assesses leadership capacity across three pillars of leadership – governance, business and pedagogy. With procurement, for example, you would look at where in your leadership the relevant expertise and capacity resides. If you’ve established that this is lacking, you can address it by outsourcing – paying a consultant or auditor to help you, or possibly another school.

Alternatively, you can propose working collaboratively with another school and trading your expertise with them: ‘We lack expertise in this area, but we have expertise in that area – if you can help us here, we could help you there.’ That’s an approach some schools have taken and have found works really well. It’s largely cost neutral, since they’re providing capacity and expertise to each other.

Of course, the role of LAs in all of this shouldn’t be underestimated. Certainly, some LAs have plenty of capacity to support their primary schools, enjoy a healthy relationship with them and provide a very good service. If that’s the case, there’s no reason for schools to step away.

Increasingly, however, LA-provided services are being diluted, and in some cases dismantled altogether. You ultimately have to look at your own context and decide on what path is right for you.

Stephen Morales is chief executive of the Institute of School Business Leadership