Learn from you your purchasing mistakes and use your governors, says Ray Barker. And then share!
in the cupboardAs chair of governors at a primary school I am continually receiving documents talking about ‘good value’. It’s confusing, as ‘value’ varies from school to school.

It’s all about money of course – now that centralised funding for ICT has dried up. Schools, we are now told, are much freer to decide their own destinies. Some have opted out of local authority control to become Academies or Free Schools. But even those who have not are being allowed to ‘do their own thing’, with Ofsted looking closely over their shoulders.

Certainly, spending money in schools, how educational supplies are procured and how you evaluate value for money from your spend are all big issues that need to be addressed more closely by governing bodies in these times of economic restraint. But it should also be about educational impact. Every year, schools collectively spend approximately £9.3 billion in areas other than teaching staff. The Government's Spending Review is looking for £1 billion of efficiency savings and back-office spending by 2014-15. Better procurement choices are seen as key to making these savings, but what about outcomes for teaching and learning?

‘Good value’ should reflect purchasing to ensure a successful implementation of the school’s development plan (SDP). Each school will have different objectives in their plan (I stress ‘objectives’ because these must be achievable), but funding should always be accounted for by governors in terms of the SDP and this is where their ‘critical friend’ role is central. The purchasing is no longer about ‘want’ but is more to do with ‘need’.

'With a simple change of system, children learned how to eat together'

For example, one new head at a primary school thought that the organisation of school meals was not achieving the best results. Children were not learning as much in the afternoon and their behaviour deteriorated after lunch. His research showed that the removal of the ‘airline trays’ system would help. Governors had to be convinced that the outlay on new crockery, cutlery and dining furniture was in line with the school’s objectives to improve standards and behaviour. Such purchases did not seem directly involved with classrooms, but they were.

With a simple change of system, children learned how to eat together – many children do not eat with their families around a table any more. They learned dining manners and how to use cutlery appropriately. They ate more, and simply did not pick at their food on their trays in any order. The school discovered that the children were calmer in the afternoon; correct diet ensured this. They talked to each other over lunch and were far more ‘civilised’ in the playground. They enjoyed the lunch experience.

The value for money argument was easily proved in better teaching and learning and behaviour. The dining room also became a more efficient space. Careful selection of furniture and the addition of screens allowed the wasted dining area to be used at other times of the day for small group work and for teaching assistants to help varied groups of children. This was a valuable addition to a ‘learning school’ and good value could be proved.

Another example concerns literacy. A new head was seen to buy all the boys in her year 4 an iPad and this caused consternation in the local authority. Was this really good value for money? In fact, the head and her governing body had considered the investment carefully. One of their big issues as identified by Ofsted and embedded in their SDP was the development of reading for boys in key stage 2. Her research showed that although the school had used a reading scheme for years this did not seem to be working so she decided upon a radical approach. By buying the iPads, the boys were encouraged to see literacy in a different way.

They had their own device and were contracted to read on it. The initiative led to the boys improving their reading ability, and this was tested, as well as involving parents at home in their children’s learning. The school is now rolling out the initiative to other groups in the school. She could have bought more books, employed more teaching assistants – but this method was innovative and based on testing good value.

The ICT perspective on "good value" is always going to be with us but I really think we need to ‘get over it’ on the one hand, but also to look more at what makes the ICT work for schools rather than focus on ‘the stuff’. Young people we teach have known nothing else but technology; it is a part of how we live now so it needs to be in schools ... no argument. The issue will always be "How much?" and how is it used?

Recent BBC coverage about a secondary school that has completely focused on iPads for students and staff and has saved more than £15,000 on photocopying is an interesting one. This school has made its investment work. Strong leadership and a focus on learning have been key.

ICT revolutions in schools come through people and strong management, not shiny kit

cupboardAll the SMT knows that this is an agreed way of working; there is no other way… we’re not going to slip back into photocopied worksheets. This is not the modus operandi in all schools, however. Bad value for money is when huge investments have been made in ICT and the headteacher or SMT have not seen the opportunity to change the culture of the school.

Staff have carried on doing what they have always done because change is difficult. Management of change is not done well in schools generally. ICT revolutions in schools have never come through the shiny kit; they have always come through people and strong management making it work.

Sometimes the new ICT was ‘championed’ by one or two staff with the hope that change would come through osmosis – it never does. Often the one or two people leave without having passed on skills so the ICT initiative dies. Maybe there was just too much money.

The government says you need more software and here is extra money to buy it. Do you really want it? Do you know how to make the most of it? Doesn’t matter – just buy it. And so we come to cupboards… schools all have ICT ‘stuff’ I their cupboards – unused – and often the equipment or software will get thrown out. A new look at ‘good value’ could be about using this and getting the whole school excited.

Tell us what's in your cupboard and let's get it used

What is needed to make this work? Leadership telling staff to do something with this stuff is the first stage. Can it help with achieving the objectives of the SDP? Get in touch with the company and ask for training. Tell them you’ll become a show school for them and provide them with case studies. You might even get upgraded equipment or new contant! Here’s another challenge… tell us about what’s in your cupboard so we can challenge others to help you to use the stuff. Someone else might actually want it. Let’s re-invent what ‘good value’ means.

The big issue is that procurement in schools is still really not taken seriously, enough considering how much money is being spent. I think this is historically something to do with the fact that schools have always received money and there has always been someone there to bail them out if something went wrong – usually the local authority. It has now all changed and governing bodies need to be aware of their responsibilities.

Leasing and contracts have become a hot topic recently as some schools found themselves with large bills as leasing companies went bankrupt. Contracts were signed for photocopiers and laptops without a really careful look at the small print. It is an important role of governors to question the conditions of contracts; it should not simply be up to the headteacher to make the decision. Some headteachers were sacked over this; the chair of governors is the person with the responsibility.

Many governing bodies will contain financial expertise not available to schools and this needs to be made the most of. It is no weakness to ask for advice. What were the various finance committees of the schools involved in the leasing fiasco doing by allowing these contracts with huge liabilities to the schools to be signed? The best adage for all deals and contracts offered to schools is "If a deal seems to be too good to be true then it is." Of course, Academies as independent institutions have their own procurement issues. They are subject to European procurement law and tendering for large amounts… think yourself lucky sometimes!

'Only 62 per cent set a budget for printed resources and digital content'

cupboardResearch into procurement by the British Educational Supliers Association (BESA, August 2012) showed that 92 per cent of schools set a Consistent Financial Reporting (CFR) E19 learning resources budget, but only 62 per cent set a budget for printed resources and digital content. What is happening to the rest of the money? Does the governing body know?

I know that schools are often short of money and are always looking for ways to save but if the strategies are clear to implement the SDP, then the funding should be allocated. One interesting issue to arise is how do schools account for their Pupil Premium spend? Often this is a large amount of money for disadvantaged pupils and should be spent on improving their life chances. I wonder how many governing bodies do not know exactly how much Pupil Premium is in their budget and how it is being spent. I would find it very difficult to accept that new windows will help these children.

So, how can we achieve a more reliable procurement process and set of attitudes? Well, firstly we have to create an informed consumer – knowledge is power. Many schools have no idea of standards in furniture when they procure desks and chairs for their classrooms. There are European standards to ensure stability and health and safely – particularly to do with posture and the prevention of back pain. Many schools still buy ‘cheap’ on their trips to IKEA, but spending a bit more on something designed to last longer, and be better for the future health of their children, would be a better use of money.

Many headteachers have discovered that school business managers are now indispensable. However, some small schools may have difficulty employing a full-time school business manager, even though their needs and responsibilities may be similar to those of larger schools. These schools should consider sharing the services of a school business manager with other schools. Research has also shown that on average, school business managers can cover their salary costs over a three-year period

11 per cent of schools collaborate to buy ICT – one of the most expensive purchases

When teachers look to companies to use for building, plumbing or even holidays, they often look for a "badge" to show that they belong to a trade association. These are bodies representing the particular industry but are also "policing" it – they help to keep your investment safe and inspire trust. How often, when looking for any educational resources, do schools or their business managers look to see if companies are members of the British Educational Suppliers Association – the trade body for the sector? BESA members offer safety, reliability and value for money. Governing bodies should be asking if educational resources companies being used are members.

The Government advocates more collective procurement – schools getting together to make the most of economies of scale. It cannot just be led by one school which is making money out of the others. According to BESA research, only 11 per cent of schools collaborate in procurement of classroom ICT – one of the most expensive purchases. And 35 per cent of primaries sometimes use this method – only 37 per cent of secondaries. Such small numbers are not surprising. Many schools are in competition with each other most of the time so it’s difficult to come together and share information and finances. So clearly there are issues over collaborative procurement and savings; someone needs to help schools to do this effectively. It works best in academy chains, of course, where a centralised administrative unit can buy for all.

A simple solution to more knowledge and awareness is a small investment in exhibitions and major events such as The Education Show and BETT. Many heads think allowing staff to come to these events is a waste of money; I think it is a good investment, but only if planned and in line with SDP. Not only do staff find out what is new and exciting, what may provide a solution to the challenges of meeting their objectives, but the events are also rich in CPD. So an investment in supply cover and a visit with a list of things to be considered and reported back, are easily paid for by the training and development provided. And … don’t forget to look in your cupboard and get back to us for help.

Ray BarkerRay Barker is an educator, writer and publisher and former director of the British Educational Suppliers Association



"In the Cupboard"
If you'd like to share what's in your cupboard with a view to sharing good advice with others please email merlin@agent4change with "In the cupboard" in the subject line

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