DfE Schools’ buying strategy: Do you buy it?
Published in January 2017, the DfE Schools’ buying strategy is “intended to support schools to save over £1 billion a year by 2019-20 on their non-staff spend”. According to the document, the reason this is needed is in response to estimated cost pressures of around 8% for all schools by 2019/20 which arise from increases in pay, National Insurance and pension contributions.
The National Funding Formula gets a mention, from the point of view of how it will support efficiency, “give greater certainty on funding and allow schools to plan ahead effectively”. There is obviously no mention of the government’s failure to provide sufficient funding to cover both pupil number increases and cost pressures, which is the main reason schools need to find a way to make such drastic savings.
In this post, we share our views on the ‘Schools’ buying strategy’ and consider some of the claims it makes for the future. We also signpost you to useful sources which support schools to plan effectively for potential future funding scenarios and make the best use of the resources available to them to ensure high quality education for every child.
The Schools’ buying strategy is aimed at finance staff, school leaders and governors from all school types but is of most practical use for school buyers, which it recognises are usually School Business Managers (SBMs). The strategic aims, guiding principles and specific initiatives detailed in the strategy are best summarised as a diagram:
So what do the School Financial Success team think about the strategy?
Practical support which is already available for schools and SBMs is summarised in one place. This is in itself useful for SBMs, who are often trying to fit too many jobs into not enough time. The support that is out in the DfE Schools’ buying strategy looks good on paper, but from my personal experience as a School Business Director it isn’t always as useful as it may sound. I have no doubt that SBMs’ experience of the ‘tools for schools to assess efficiency’ and ‘guidance on best practice’ cited in this document will differ from school to school. It is certainly worth having a look for yourself, and you may find some useful insight if you haven’t accessed these already, but don’t expect a miracle cure or magic wand to your school’s financial challenges.
The Five National Deals are a great idea. I have experience of some but not of others. This is an area SBMs should explore further to see if there are savings to be made within their own school context. A health warning though, beware of claims that you may make savings of £100k in one area and don’t rely on this in your planning. Explore each deal thoroughly and make sure you know all the facts before you commit to any deals or use estimates in your budget planning. In my experience of IT suppliers and contracts, the market is fraught with over-pricing and high profit margins; a difference of £100k from one supplier to the next for a similar contract would not be unheard of. For bigger schools and MATs, taking an IT service in-house can also generate significant savings without compromising quality of service.
Local SBM Networks
Acknowledgement of the importance of skills for SBMs and relationships in and between schools to create local buyer networks is welcomed. What this looks like across different parts of the country will vary. In my experience, I have found working with both primary, secondary and special school colleagues very useful in sharing good practice, good deals and making financial savings. With the evolution of MATs this may feel like it’s becoming more difficult for some SBMs. We will look forward to seeing what impact the DfE proposed Network Leaders’ Forum will have in this area over the next 12 months.
If you are lucky enough to already have a local SBM forum in your area, then access it. If you are not, why not approach some colleagues and try to set one up? As an SBM you are resourceful, practical and self-motivated. Why wait for the DfE strategy to develop when you could be the change that your area needs sooner rather than later?
Help with complex buying
On the first page of the strategy DfE states that “Schools will work directly with other schools to achieve greater efficiencies, whether through multi Academy Trusts (MATs) or through individual schools working together to negotiate deals and share services”. This is an area we talk about in some detail in our eBook ‘A Helping Hand to Secure a Sustainable Budget’. We recognise that this can work if done well, but in a culture of local competition to secure pupil numbers it is often not easy to achieve.
We hope that the proposed School Buying Hubs, developed to promote collaborative buying (due to be piloted in 2017 and delivered to scale by 2018/19) will have a positive impact in this area. We wonder whether the DfE’s timescale is quick enough to support schools suffering significant budget cuts from the NFF. We also question how much the School Buying Hubs initiative will cost and where it will be funded from.
Smarter consumer guidance
Many schools would already consider themselves smart consumers, operating best practice in purchasing decisions and methods of reducing waste. It is good that the DfE is looking to work with schools such as these and procurement experts to produce best practice checklists for less commercially aware schools. The timeline for the release of this guidance is spring 2017 for the pilot, with the sharing and promotion of this guidance nationally to follow. We hope this process moves quickly and that all schools have access to this as soon as possible so that proactive strategies can be implemented early to enable schools to cope with the funding uncertainties they face.
We also discuss guidance in our eBook which can help schools now. We strongly encourage schools to start work in this area early in order to be prepared, and not to sit back and wait until DfE guidance is released when it may be too late to make all the changes you need to.
Digital opportunities: comparing the market
The idea of being able to use a ‘compare the market’ type tool to find the best deal quickly and efficiently across a whole range of areas of expenditure sounds too good to be true. The chances are, it probably is. Whilst a national tool set up for all schools may be of some use in some areas it is unlikely to completely alleviate the need to compare against local providers of goods and services in the way that schools do now, and these must surely still be considered in order to make a true judgement of the ‘best deal’.
It will be interesting to see just how useful this tool becomes as it is developed and piloted from summer 2017. Will it be ready in time to help schools suffering severe budget cuts through the NFF and will it help schools to make significant savings?
Departmental focus areas:
The DfE cites two key areas as underpinning the overall strategy; greater professionalisation of school business management and enhanced communication with the sector.
Greater professionalisation of school business management
We welcome the recognition of the importance of school business management in schools in securing the best use of a school’s resources. For many schools a School Business Manager role is already well established and an integral part of the senior leadership team as it should be. In other schools, there is still work to be done to improve skills and status of SBMs.
The DfE proposes to coordinate work to improve both skills and status into a single plan which will cover improved career structures for SBMs, high quality professional development for SBMs at all levels and raising the status of the business management function. Work has been ongoing in this area over the last decade or more by various organisations and there has been much success.
As a new era of school funding and school collaboration dawns on the education sector, we hope that the DfE can deliver their intention and create a clearer pathway of high quality qualifications to support those already in post to continue to develop and attract skilled individuals to the profession to ensure children across the country are getting the best deal.
Look out for future School Financial Success posts on professional development for school business management in schools and the role of the school business leader in in MATs (multi-academy trusts), schools considering joining a MAT and those in other complex or federated school and academy settings.
Enhanced communication with the sector
We all know the importance of excellent communication in order for any initiative to be a success. The DfE recognises in this strategy that they need to improve this, “especially when explaining to schools what is on offer”. They propose to do this through user-testing work, feedback through early engagement, pilots and user-centric design. We hope that by genuinely consulting with and listening to the views and feedback of the people on the ground, that this strategy can be of use to schools.
Will it work?
The testing of the Schools’ buying strategy amongst SBMs and other school buyers has already revealed some positive responses as well as two key concerns.
“Key concerns raised were about duplicating or over-writing existing good work, and the need to learn from the fact that some similar things had been attempted before, without success.”
So, do you buy it?
Do you think the strategy will save £1 billion a year by 2019/20? Is this the answer to the issues schools face with funding cuts or is it an attempt by the DfE to justify the effects of the implementation of the NFF without directly saying so? Does the strategy fall short of ensuring schools can survive this national education funding crisis?
Unfortunately, the view for many schools may be that this strategy is too little too late. It could be seen by some schools as an attempt to justify cuts which will have crippling effects around the country.
Whilst we at School Financial Success strongly believe that making the best use of resources, achieving value for money and not being wasteful are all paramount to outstanding financial leadership, we also feel that there is insufficient funding in the school system for the NFF proposals to be implemented in a way that promotes fairness and stability. Perhaps time, energy and resources spent getting this right would be better received by schools.