Procurement in schools is contributing towards some unhappy events

We’re seeing a number of unhappy cases where procurement in the English schools sector is hitting the national press for the wrong reasons.

In Derby, the troubled Al-Madinah Muslim free school was described by Ofsted inspectors as  "dysfunctional" and rated inadequate in every category - within a year of it opening. All the Trustees have now agreed to stand down, a new team parachuted has been brought in to run it, and questions have been asked about a range of financial issues, including contracts awarded to firms with connections to Governors and others connected to the schools. As the Daily Telegraph reported:

It also found the faith school could not “currently demonstrate that it is maintaining proper accounting records," while auditors had identified "irregular payments" of almost £20,000. Among those who had declared conflicts of interest were a former governor and a current governor whose companies supplied the school and a governor with relatives working as suppliers to the school.  A governor whose company provides human resources services to the school was cited as a further potential conflict of interest.

Meanwhile, Greg Wallace, one of the “super heads” praised by Education Minister, Michael Gove, has resigned from the five schools he oversees in Hackney, London after questions were asked about a IT contract awarded to his boyfriend’s firm. Now the waters here may be somewhat muddy. The schools are in Hackney, run by a left-wing council who hate much of the Government’s education policy, and Wallace has also antagonised some teachers and their unions  – some have previously walked out in a demonstration against what they described as "unfair treatment" at his hands.

And the Chair of the Governors at two of the schools said this:

“Greg Wallace was always open with me about his connection with C2 Technology. The contract was judged on its value and its quality. We have been very satisfied with the work which has given the children access to modern technology at a competitive price”.

So we wait to see whether there is really much substance to these allegations or whether it is a witch-hunt. The procurement process undertaken to appoint this firm is obviously critical to the whole issue.

It’s clear from this that all schools, their senior leaders and Trustees or Governors, need to have a good understanding of proper procurement processes and propriety. A quick investigation shows that the Department of Education provides some decent guidance documents (like this one)for schools on procurement issues  – but I couldn’t find anything that covers core governance and policy issues, such as conflict of interest. (If someone can point that out, I’ll happily feature it here).

I also wonder whether it would be clearer and simpler to just say that no Governor / Trustee / Teacher (or their close family and partners) can have a commercial relationship with the school where they serve. Now that might rule out a few good potential Trustees, but it would make the situation very clear.

Of course, it we did that, we might have to do something similar for Councillors, non-execs in other public bodies and so on. But maybe that wouldn’t be a bad idea anyway.

Voices (6)

  1. Ronald Duncan:

    This is a complex area, most sensible governors will ensure that any conflict of interest is raised noted and that things are gone through with more scrutiny than if there was no conflict of interest.

    Most organisations have established policies for conflict of interest, it is a reasonably old problem and has been solved before. Disqualifying anyone with a potential conflict of interest whilst easy, just means that you can not have anyone commercial as a governor which is clearly not a good idea in a world where schools have just become much more commercial and responsible for a lot more.

    The Education sector has a good solution in the form of the GeM.ac.uk marketplace and this could help schools with their procurement.

  2. Paul Wright:

    A while ago I set up with a fellow school governor some training on procurement for schools, http://www.first4schools.co.uk. We were not looking to make ourselves rich but to help out (and maybe make a few bob). We didn’t push it hard, but those who attended found it useful, but most schools (ironically) did not have a budget fir such training. We are still happy to do it if anyone knows of a group of schools that would be interested in covering our expenses.

  3. Cora:

    These news stories clearly put school procurement firmly in the spotlight again. It’s absolutely shocking that this kind of activity is allowed to happen when something can easily be done about it. Schools across England can get access for FREE to the Government eMarketplace. This gives them instant access to GPS and YPO content at the best value prices from compliant suppliers. It’s safe, cost effective and will deliver efficiencies for each school if used correctly. Furthermore, if they use Capita SIMS for their Finance Management System, they can have integration from the Government eMarketplace, also for free, which brings with it all of the auditability, visibility and transparency to ensure they manage their expenditure appropriately. And this will make it easier to spot these kinds of conflicts earlier and help mitigate any fall out. People go into teaching because they have a passion and skill for learning, not because they are experts in procurement. So by putting their spend through secure networks like the Government eMarketplace, teachers don’t have to worry each time they sign on the dotted line, and instead can focus on what they care about and what add value to England’s children – Teaching!

  4. Trevor Black:

    I can say from personal experience that schools (through no fault of their own) are one of the key sources of commercial ineptitude and waste. Many are multi-million pound businesses and the politically driven rush to distance them from local authority control resulted in the responsibility for procurement being past around from the caretakers, secretary, bursar, deputy head (or anyone) is the prime reason. I have gone into many schools where they have requested assistance and discovered a catalogue of disasters. They include signing up to not fit for purpose leasing agreements when they thought they were buying the products, buying hardware that was incompatible with the software they were using, purchasing equipment when the existing contract provided for free of charge replacements, illegal and dangerous installations of electrical equipment……..and so on. Many are vulnerable to any sales spiv walking off the street and will reveal the existing contract information in the belief they will get a better price. My biggest challenge was attempting to explain to a Headteacher the principles of economies of scale but as they are tuned to transmit and not to receive the only thing I got out of it was a headache!

  5. Helen Lumb:

    Hi Peter, the publication you refer to was indeed intended to link to the Departments procurement pages but you may care to highlight the work of the Education Funding Agency (EFA) who produce the Academies Financial Handbook and regular bulletins which set out financial responsibilities and requirements. The bulletin highlights important hot topics schools should note or action.

  6. Dave Sheldon:

    The public sector is accused of including a lot of unecessary “red tape” in its processes but most Councils include questions about “Have you worked for the Council in a senior position?” or “Are you related to a Council Member?” in their tender process for a reason.

    These questions are considered to be a red light and if the answer is “Yes” the tender is subject to more scrutiny rather than just passed through.

    Governements have made schools more and more autonomous and Heads are, in many cases, unable to make proper contracting decisions when faced by salesmen who lie and pull the wool over their eyes. Yes I’m talking about copier and printers which have cost the education systems millions in excessive payments!

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