Rowena Thomas shares five ideas for ensuring cost-effective procurement…
With teacher workload topping the agenda for schools and policy-makers alike, it’s worth noting that the sourcing and purchasing of classroom equipment is likely to be one time-consuming chore that most educators wish could be made easier, especially as budgets get tighter. Good procurement practice is achievable, however, and there are many ways to make the purchasing process easier for everyone – not to mention more economical. Here are five tips to help manage this difficult balancing act:
1. Time is money
You could spend several hours comparing one product or supplier against the next - and indeed, savings can be achieved doing this, but at what price? When you consider the hidden cost of time spent trawling the market for comparisons and the handling of paperwork from many different suppliers, do the savings that you’ve achieved still hold up? More suppliers also means additional work for your school business manager or bursar as he or she will have to process more orders and run more supplier checks. Did you know that outside help is available? Schools can gain equipment buying advice from their council’s procurement team or professional buying organisations (PBOs). Some PBOs are publicly-owned and therefore offer their services for free - helping schools identify good deals on a range of specialist equipment or building services or ICT to save money across different purchasing categories. Professional buying organisations can also help pass on buying tips to schools e.g. helping them to recognise tell-tale signs of suppliers’ pricing tactics (such as loss-leader prices on copier paper but then higher prices on other stationery items).
2. Hidden extras
When comparing prices remember to look out for hidden charges. Delivery and carriage are obvious ones, but other examples may include additional accessories needed to make a product work or to install it; staff training on usage; or extra costs for different colours or fabrics. Professional suppliers will make it clear where extra charges apply rather than sneaking the cost in at the end or mentioning it when you’re too far invested to turn back. Get used to asking the right questions at the beginning of the buying process. Extra charges are sometimes unavoidable but it’s essential to know about them from the outset and factor this in to the total cost.
3. Plan ahead
Planning ahead on equipment purchases can help drive savings. Typically, most schools will purchase new supplies before the end of the summer term or, if you’re an academy school, in September when DfE funding comes in. These periods are peak times for schools and manufacturers of education furniture and equipment alike and can often lead to potential delays in product deliveries or higher prices as demand exceeds supply. Take some time out to plan for your requirements and the best PBOs and suppliers will work with you to ensure you get best prices and your items on time.
4. Shop around
Now I know I’ve already said don’t waste too much time comparing prices with different suppliers, but it is definitely worth finding a supplier or PBO that consistently offers value for money across equipment and site services like ICT. PBOs in particular work with proven local suppliers to secure good deals so that these savings can be passed on to schools; some will offer buying ‘health checks’ to help optimise budgets. Benchmarking data on the top 100 essential products supplied to schools last year, which included paper, pens, glue and exercise books, showed massive price differences between many of the UK’s leading suppliers to schools.
Buying frameworks can often be an extremely convenient route to market for many of the products and services needed by schools. From the provision of utilities to first aid training or books, frameworks provide a competitively priced and proven way to make purchases. The PBO uses its buying power to obtain discounts and all suppliers that are on the framework will have been reviewed to ensure they are reputable and can deliver as promised. Another benefit of purchasing from a framework is that they are compliant with EU procurement regulations, meaning that you can procure your products or services without having to run a formal tender process.
About the author
Rowena Thomas is head of category for education at professional buying organisation, ESPO (espo.org). She has worked in public sector procurement for over 30 years, and works with schools to meet both their day-to-day and one-off new build furniture and equipment needs.