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Managing school budgets – How to save millions

January 4, 2022, 12:29 GMT+1
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  • Claudia Robinson looks at how Bishop Wilkinson Catholic Trust is rolling out its new procurement service...
Managing school budgets – How to save millions

It is estimated that schools in England spend a total of £10.7 billion every year on non-staffing costs, with the North East’s share of that being half a billion pounds.

Everything from catering, stationery, IT, electricity, water, printers, transport and facilities management comes out of that pot.

The challenges schools face when trying to find ways to save money are many and complex, and there is little time to research and execute the best deals. There are often skill and knowledge gaps internally and stakeholder engagement can be time consuming.

Coupled with the complexities of the market, conflicting commercial models and a lack of education specialists in the supply chain, it is understandable why many schools follow the pack, and stick with existing suppliers.

But it’s very much like that letter we receive every year from our house, car or life insurance provider. If you shop around, you are more than likely to find a better deal. But have you got the time? For many schools, the answer is no.

In 2017 the Department for Education launched the schools’ buying strategy, to formalise a series of initiatives to support buyers in schools to help them get the best value, save time and ultimately invest those savings back into the school.

The strategy aimed to support schools to save over £1 billion a year by 2019-20. The initiative had secured estimated savings of over £425 million by April 2020 – half of what they set out to do.

Education Commercial Services (ECS) believes it can do better than that.

Making savings

The Bishop Wilkinson Catholic Education Trust (BWCET), one of the largest Academy Trusts in the North East, initially set up ECS to secure better deals for its schools and is already helping them save at least 10% on non-staffing costs.

Julie Collins, Commercial Director at ECS and BWCET, said: “By July 2022 we will have 48 schools in our trust, which equates to an income of £85 million with 75% of that being spent on the salaries of 2,200 members of staff. 

“This means we’ll have a purchasing capacity of £21 million for goods and services to support the educational experience of 16,000 pupils, so it’s crucial we get this right to ensure as much money as possible is saved. And that’s exactly what we’re doing, saving way more than 10% across the trust.”

ECS is now rolling out the service to schools outside of the trust and already has some satisfied customers. Ultimately, ECS believes it can help schools, in the North East alone, save £25m.

Nick Hurn, CEO of the Bishop Wilkinson Catholic Education Trust, described the concept behind ECS as “quite simple”: “It is to match what a school or Trust needs with a highly skilled and knowledgeable commercial and procurement specialist - so ensuring that the school or Trust gets exactly what they want and need at the best possible value for money, while also staying fully compliant and within the law. 

“That’s why we knew this idea was a winner from the very start, as invariably many schools over the years have not been getting best value for money and are often working outside the financial regulations without even knowing.”

Supporting all schools

Whickham School in Gateshead is one of the first schools to benefit from ECS, despite not being part of the Trust.

The school had a vision to create a high-quality service provision that matched not only its own expectations but also those of its students – as well as helping to complement existing facilities and infrastructure whilst offering them the potential to grow as a Trust. 

There needed to be a focus on quality hot and cold food options, which were delicious, nutritious and healthy, and produced in line with a healthy eating policy, whilst ensuring good value for money.

Steve Haigh, the school’s CEO, said: “We already had a fair amount of procurement experience at the school, but we were looking for someone to take us through a catering tender as we were very short on time. 

“We needed someone to accelerate us through the process. We were particularly impressed with the bespoke proposal we received from ECS and felt, on balance, it was a worthwhile exercise to do, with the aim of saving money.

“One of the appeals was that there is a broader team at ECS and their experience, involvement and knowledge in this area has been really impressive. We felt like they were part of our team, making the process cohesive and remarkably straightforward.

“We already had a commercial offer from the incumbent catering provider but to be compliant in the public sector we had to go through the tender process.

“We had been with the previous company for seven years but there comes a point when you have to demonstrate fairness, transparency, to prove the contract is competitive - and that you are obtaining value for money. 

“From an internal management point of view, we were confident their new proposal was attractive, but the view from governors was that we had to prove it was good. ECS were able not just to investigate this for us but undertake a fully compliant competitive tendering process and ultimately secure even more substantial savings for the school. 

“We are also rebranding and relaunching the service to increase footfall as part of the tender process and this was all achieved in a fast, 18-week project turnaround.”

Steve and the senior leadership team at Whickham School were so impressed with the outcome that they’ve since engaged ECS to deliver in other areas of non-staffing spend.

“We have looked at payroll and HR advice and are currently working on school uniform,” Steve said. “It’s a really comprehensive process and we’re encouraged by ECS’ passion and commitment for getting the best deal, whilst saving us loads of time in a swift and efficient way.”


Whickham School faced several challenges:

  • The value and complexity of the project required compliance with UK Contract Procedure Rules and whilst the school had some experience in procurement, they wanted to ensure the process was conducted in accordance with the law
  • The incumbent provider had been providing the service for a number of years and the school had no real idea on whether or not they were receiving the best possible solution and achieving value for money
  • As a service contract, it was subject to TUPE regulations which the school was keen to ensure was managed correctly
  • The school wanted to embed social value and sustainability within the contract in support of their longer-term sustainability goals
  • The school wanted to increase footfall as part of their commitment to ensure all children had access to a healthy, nutritious meal priced within government guidelines.

Julie Collins added: “The fact we are now helping schools that aren’t part of the Bishop Wilkinson Catholic Education Trust makes our work even more rewarding. We are looking forward to working with many more schools in the North East, and beyond to ensure they’re getting the best procurement deals, enabling them to invest more in their pupils and their futures.”

Claudia Robinson is head of content at Allies Group.