Helping schools buy with confidence

Courtney Brightwell from the Department for Education’s Schools Commercial Team discusses the support schools can get when buying goods and services, so they can purchase with confidence

Our aim in the Schools Commercial Team is to support schools to get good value whenever they buy the goods and services they need.  We already have a wide range of approved procurement frameworks available via GOV.UK to help schools buy everything from catering and cleaning to energy and ICT.
Supporting schools

For the last two years we have run two pilot hubs that work alongside schools to support them to buy the things they need. We wanted to understand if there is the appetite for a service that offers hands on support to schools to buy goods and services, particularly those which are complex or high risk to buy. The pilots proved that this type of service is valued by schools.
We evaluated the pilots, looked at different ways of providing this service in the future and undertook a consultation with the sector. We concluded that the DfE is best placed to provide this service directly to schools across England. We can recommend frameworks impartially and running the service ourselves gives us the ability to grow and adapt the service over time, based on schools’ changing needs.  
So, for many months my colleagues and I have been focused on building a DfE service to support schools with procurement. What we bring is experience of designing services that are intuitive to use and based on extensive research with schools. What we lacked was first-hand experience of buying for a school or MAT. Thankfully, around 120 school business professionals and teaching staff at different levels of seniority and experience have been very generous with their time and helped us start to design and build a service, which we are confident will make buying for schools quicker, easier and cheaper in the future.
We’re very grateful to the many school-based staff who have given up their time to help us design and test our new service, we simply couldn’t do it without their expertise, feedback and insight. In service design we never want to assume, we always want to ask. It has been brilliant to design prototype digital services and put them in the hands of people who buy for schools and see how they use them, what questions they have and what they want to do with the results. However, we recognise that means taking up people’s valuable time and we know time is such a scarce commodity for people who work in schools.
The design principles we follow say build something small, test it, improve it, test it again and when you’re happy it meets your users’ needs – release it. Let people use it and then gather more information about what works well and what needs further improvement. It’s an iterative process and it’s one where we continually learn what works for our users so we can improve the way we help them. You may have used government digital services in the past, whether for your school or in your personal life, for example services such as registering to vote or booking a Covid-19 test or vaccination. They are designed to be simple, clear and easy-to-follow, with the fewest steps possible to complete the job the user is trying to do. We’re aiming to reflect the best elements of these services in how we support schools with procurement online. Of course, behind the digital service will be a team of procurement experts who will be able to help and guide those schools who need more support.

Get Help Buying for Schools

Our service, Get Help Buying for Schools, will be released incrementally over the next year. That will be the start of a new phase for our team and not the end of the process. Once schools start using the service, we’ll be gathering feedback to understand what works well and what we can improve, and we’ll continue to rely on schools to guide us in what to develop next.
We’re optimistic that in November we’ll release an online tool that will allow schools to build procurement specifications for both catering and multi-functional printing and scanning devices. Our plan is to release more categories of spend next year. Both schools and suppliers have highlighted the need to have better specifications in order to get the procurement process started right. Following our design principles, we’ll be starting small, learning rapidly and scaling up as we go.  
As part of the preparations for Get Help Buying for Schools, we are broadening the DfE’s offer in terms of recommended frameworks and we’re revising our online advice and guidance so that it is all in one place and easier to navigate.
Next year, once we have successfully transitioned schools currently using our pilot services, we will then be able to open up our supported buying service more widely to schools across England. We very much look forward to working with those schools who need hands on support with buying to get great quality goods and services they need at the right price and with terms and conditions that protect them, and they have confidence in.  
To keep up to date with the latest developments for Get Help Buying for Schools please follow our GOV.UK Buying for Schools blog or find us on Linkedin @BuyingforSchools.