When I was a young teacher in London there was a large central buying organisation for schools, called something like Greater London Supplies. I recall that they had a big depot at Tottenham Hale in north London. Purchasing basic supplies on behalf of large numbers of schools made good business sense, even to the most socialist of Labour councils. However, it didn’t make sense to the Thatcher government that believed market competition at a school level was the way forward.
Reading the DfE’s recent announcement on procurement and helping schools with costs, suggests that this is yet another move back in the direction of levering the purchasing power of schools as a combined unit, rather than expecting them to operate as individual business sites. How long will it be before Ofsted is asked to include in their inspection report whether a school is making full use effective purchasing decisions to target as much cash as possible on teaching and learning?
TeachVac, the free vacancy site for schools and teachers, www.teachvac.co.uk where I am chair of the board, doesn’t yet feature in the DfE list. I am sure that they will find a good reason not to list it, as they don’t yet list any vacancy advertising services, whether they are either paid for services like all the others or free like TeachVac and their own nascent service. Maybe they don’t want competition?
The government’s actions in driving down costs aren’t completely risk free. After all, if prices are driven down too far then suppliers will exit the market and leave just one monopoly provider. At that point, it becomes an issue as to whether the State should regulate the provision of the service or actually take over the running.
As I have suggested in previous posts on this topic, once prices have been reduced by increasing efficiency then it can become very difficult to make a profit. Then there is also the reason why local decision-making was favoured by many: the speed of service delivery. A central maintenance contract may be cheaper, but what is the true cost of waiting several days for a window to be replaced or a leaking toilet mended?
I am sure that there is a unit within the DfE thinking of other areas where schools can either save money or increase their incomes without putting more pressure on parents. They might want to ensure deals there are good deals on school uniforms and sports kit and make schools explain why they are requiring a uniform that is more expensive than the average. Tradition, would not be a good enough answer.
My own suggestion for research is, as mentioned before, school playgrounds. They must be the least used piece of real estate in the country. I don’t suggest they are done away with, as when needed they perform a vital function, but what can we do with them for the other 99% of the year? More all-weather community pitches; a source of generating renewable energy; even vegetable growing spaces areas with a playground on top.
We are spending millions on research into driverless cars; how about a couple of million for more effective playground spaces?