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However, Caroline Wright says that while PSBOs are significant in the market, “procurement routes are becoming increasingly diverse.” “Schools are increasingly sourcing

their own deals and using suppliers’ own websites,” she adds. A potential problem for prospective suppliers is that some schools have a tendency to stick with familiar suppliers. “A lot of schools tend to use companies they know and trust for both large and small contracts – they’ll get three quotes to tick boxes,” says Chris Lacey. “But it’s not good for them – if a company has a cosy relationship with a school, they won’t offer a competitive service.” is currently developing

a new service, edQuote, which suppliers can use to compete for contracts. Prospective suppliers can also use online services such as TES BuyWire (, where schools post contracts that suppliers bid for, and the Government’s ContractsFinder website (, which lists public tenders worth over £10,000. It’s also worth paying attention to

subcontracting opportunities with the bigger players who secure primary contracts.Amy Teichman, group development chef for nationwide school catering supplier Alliance in Partnership’s Kensington and Chelsea contracts, says she works with a lot of small suppliers. “The Borough has very specific

requirements when it comes to the food we supply,” she says. “We work with lots of small, bespoke suppliers who are able to give us exactly what we need to meet those requirements. “For example, I recently organised a Jubilee party where I wanted to serve hotdogs; we needed the sausages to be a specific size, and bread rolls to match, and our butcher and baker were able to make those especially for us.”

Who holds the purse strings?

“The education sector is very specific in terms of how schools receive marketing, when it’s best to approach them, and who to target,” Caroline Wright advises. “For businesses like furniture manufactur- ers, ICT etc, headteachers are often involved in purchasing; for textbooks and other resources, school bursars and subject heads are more involved; there’s no one-size-fits-all approach.” Knowing who to contact is key. Even if you don’t have a name, understanding the

Better Business No 189

A lot of schools tend to use companies they know and trust for both large and small contracts

different roles that are held within schools can help you target the right person. According to BESA’s 2012 Procurement in English Schools report, suppliers of teaching materials are most likely to be chosen by heads of department (in secondary schools) and subject leaders (in primary schools), while decisions over general school items and stationery tend to be made by school resource managers or bursars. Caroline Wright points out that it’s

also worth bearing in mind schools’ financial calendars. For example, Academies’ financial year runs in line with the academic year, so most will restrict purchasing around July in order to conclude their annual accounts. For other state schools, which operate in line with the tax year, this tends to happen around March.

Getting noticed

Once you’ve found the right buyer to approach, the method you use is also important. Craig McKee, ICT co-ordina- tor in a large junior school in the Midlands, says: “I think it’s difficult really, anything that I receive that I haven’t asked for goes straight in the bin, so certainly cold mail shots aren’t the way forward.” Chris Lacey agrees that sending out “generic marketing content” is not the right approach. “The key is getting noticed and on the

shortlist,” he says. “In the past, suppliers were more successful with e-mail campaigns but getting e-mails through school servers is very difficult.” A good online presence is also

important. Craig says he typically uses the Internet to search for specific products he’s interested in. According to BESA’s 2012 report, a large proportion of schools make purchases from low-cost online suppliers such as Amazon. “You need to communicate to schools

that you are school-friendly,” advises Chris Lacey. “For example having a landing page for schools on your website, or

something as simple as the banner we supply for websites saying ‘this is an EdFirst school supplier’.

Making it easy for schools

“The name of the game is supplying the product the schools want – you have to be flexible,” advises Amy Teichman, who believes one of the reasons why schools like using Alliance in Partnership is their focus on education. She also spends a lot of time in schools, talking to heads, teachers and support staff to make sure they’re happy. “Generally the two things head teachers

want are quickness in the lunchroom and for children to eat the food,” she adds. “They run a very tight schedule. The reason I think we are perceived well is that we are very ‘hands-on’.” Chris Lacey agrees that schools need

to know you’re committed. “You need to show you’re serious about working with schools. Getting CRB checked is not required by all schools, or for all types of work. But it helps.” So what else is important to schools?

According to the BESA report, although being a current and trusted supplier is a major consideration for many schools, offering rapid and easy ordering and the lowest product cost also scored highly. Offering free trials could also speed up the decision-making process. Craig McKee says that for him this “can often make the difference between buying something and not”. David Weller, managing director

of Alliance in Partnership (AiP), advises that investing in relationships with schools is crucial. “You need to deliver what you promise, always, and keep the communication channels alive,” he says.

Back to school

Whatever it is you supply, the most important first step will be to learn about the schools market. Understanding the quirks of the education sector will be crucial, and organisations such as BESA, which operates a dedicated start up support programme, can offer additional help. The Department for Education (DfE, also has procurement guidance for schools available on its website, which could give you a better idea of how the sector works. In the end, while there is no easy, one-size-fits-all approach, finding out what schools need and making the effort to supply it could open up some unexpected new opportunities.❖


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