When you consider the escalating restrictions on budget, the pace of technology evolution and rising costs, schools constantly say that choosing and buying well is an increasingly difficult process. Neil Watkins, director of education sector procurement framework, Think IT, offers his advice and clarifies some common misunderstandings
During my 14 years working in schools the three most common causes of concern when buying edtech are based on the school’s procurement skills, the complexity of edtech and schools’ financial uncertainty. Unsurprisingly, the majority of schools just don’t have the in-house skills to create a detailed specification, go out to tender, evaluate lengthy technical proposals, interview suppliers and negotiate the best deals.
The DfE guidelines heavily promote the use of procurement frameworks to save time, money and resources, and ensure value for money; the majority of schools we talk to, however, know little about them and avoid using them
The second area of concern is based on the complexity of edtech. The pace of change in education technology is incredible; how can schools possibly expect to keep up with, and be an expert in, all the changes in networking, security, safeguarding, equipment and applications?
Finally, schools are undoubtedly feeling high levels of financial uncertainty. How can they determine what’s a good deal and what’s not? There are hundreds of stories of schools being misled. Even more important is that, despite the freedoms offered to schools, they must also follow EU procurement law.
The DfE guidelines heavily promote the use of procurement frameworks to save time, money and resources, and ensure value for money; the majority of schools we talk to, however, know little about them and avoid using them. Others believe they know about them but find the government’s protocols too onerous, while the rest remain legally compliant and save themselves significant amounts of money.
What are procurement frameworks?
A framework agreement is an arrangement that a ‘contracting authority’ (such as a local authority or a public sector buying organisation) makes with suppliers of goods, works or services. It sets out the terms under which you can make a purchase from a supplier during the lifetime of the agreement.
Equally, if schools identify new products and services from alternative suppliers, these can be added to the framework.
To clear up a few misunderstandings, despite the freedoms given to schools over recent years the threshold for goods and services, until the end of 2017, is £164,176. If your contract’s whole-life cost is above this threshold you must advertise it in the Official Journal of the European Union (OJEU). Alternatively, you can buy through a procurement framework which will have already been through a full competitive tender process. This route removes the need for schools to go through a laborious tendering process and they can be assured that they are complying with both EU and UK procurement legislation.
Another misunderstanding is that frameworks limit a school’s choice; again, not true. While different framework providers have different boundaries, and many are restricted to their registered list of suppliers, in the case of others – such as Think IT – partners can be added or removed as necessary. Despite originally being assessed as being of the highest calibre in terms of product, service, cost, fit for purpose and customer care, if a supplier’s standards fall they will be removed from the framework. Equally, if schools identify new products and services from alternative suppliers, these can be added to the framework.
All EU tendered frameworks have to provide value for money and favourable terms and conditions of business but, I would argue, not all frameworks are created equal
Pick your framework carefully
My word of advice to schools is to pick your framework carefully. Schools can buy through any relevant framework. All EU tendered frameworks have to provide value for money and favourable terms and conditions of business but, I would argue, not all frameworks are created equal. Many are ‘generalist’ frameworks that cover the whole of the public sector.
Education has some very specific requirements that need to taken into consideration, especially in the areas of safeguarding, on-line safety and cyber-security. Whatever the level of experience of your internal IT department, using a framework provider with an in-depth level of education sector experience can make the difference between success and failure.
Sometimes we have schools that have decided to spend their budget on 50 new iPads or a new server. A framework which has education sector expertise should ask questions such as, “What will you use the iPads for? Do you understand the impact that they will have on your network? What is your usage policy – i.e. will you switch off the cameras or location services? Is a new server what you really want or should you consider cloud computing?” Questions such as these could save schools from making the wrong decisions.
So what can schools do?
The framework you chose will have guidelines that you must follow to select a supplier and place an order. Depending on whether your needs are simple or more complex it will require you to either:
- Make a direct selection, where you choose the best value option for your requirements from a list of suppliers; or
- Run a mini-competition, where you ask all suppliers on the framework to send you a bid (or ‘tender’) for your requirements.
Frameworks are designed to make procurement easier and more effective; they are there to help you – so use them. There are a number out there; pick one that is relevant to you and can provide the level of support you need to help you make the right choice for your individual needs and guide you through your procurement exercise.