Academy schools raise new procurement challenges

Rowena Thomas, head of category, education, at ESPOThe House of Commons' Education Select Committee report into academy trusts’ conflicts of interest generated headlines over some poor choices by a minority of headteachers and trust boards.

However, its findings (published in September) could trigger wider questions and scrutiny in the future over the way schools organise supplies and their approach to procurement.

As we might have expected, the report showed larger, wealthier trusts tend to be better governed than smaller ones. But it also highlighted funding arrangements characterised by large sums of taxpayers’ money being paid to small trust boards and their trading arms – a concentration of authority that contributed to those now notorious conflicts of interest. 

This senior management model could potentially lead to a wider lack of capacity or commercial know-how for dealing with growing risk management and procurement compliance needs - unless there is some refocusing of schools’ management resources. 

The nature of academy schools’ procurement is changing as they expand. Professional buying organisations report growing interest from trusts, not only in larger-scale procurement of classroom equipment and IT, but also more complex services such as building management and professional services for multiple locations. Expanded academies will also need bigger or more sophisticated supply chains, since many schools are already struggling to find the right local suppliers.

And complications could come with imminent changes to the Public Contract Regulations. Senior management at trusts may not be aware that organising EU-compliant and litigation-proof tenders will absorb a growing proportion of in-house resources.

As purchasing and compliance demands increase, academies’ senior executives will need to work more closely with their finance and buying teams on developing transparent corporate-level buying strategies. They will also have to ensure that teams’ commercial and procurement know-how remains cutting edge. The government has championed upskilling for public sector professionals through the Cabinet Office’s Commissioning Academy, while public sector buying organisations offer options including procurement frameworks for services and equipment. Private sector consultancies will also point to a range of procurement consultancy and training capabilities.

Since the scope of school procurement is expanding at a time when their governance arrangements have been so publicly questioned, there is an opportunity – to some, a necessity – for trusts’ senior management to work more closely with finance and procurement professionals to address the wider procurement challenges that academies’ very success has created.

This more strategic approach will help the vast majority of well-run academies to restore public confidence but it will also help schools to focus their resources on boosting students’ outcomes - and deliver the ever-present objective of achieving best value for money in the longer-term. 

Rowena Thomas is head of category, education, at ESPO.

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