The DfE recently announced an opportunity to ‘Register to buy tablet devices for your school’ (8 April 2016) in an effort to bring back collective buying power to schools seeking to purchase iPads and other tablets. They explain that:
“DfE is facilitating a further procurement to allow schools to buy tablets using ‘collective buying power’, after the pilot saved 12% on the price. The procurement will be completed by the Crown Commercial Service (CCS).
Collective buying power allows a group to negotiate better discounts.
The procurement will offer 4 tablet options:
- Apple iPad
- Microsoft Surface Pro
- a generic tablet
There will also be a number of associated items to choose from, eg security marking, covers and charging stations.”
Which all seems very laudable, so why was there such a barrage of negative comments on social media, from myself and other folk in the world of education technology? In what follows I will attempt to explain the apparent negativity, as I explore the mysterious world of procurement.
I have always had an uneasy relationship with the word ‘procurement’. Probably because my first encounters with the term were via the Sunday redtop tabloids of my youth, where it seemed to apply exclusively to mysterious relationships between well-known public figures and relatively youthful and exotic young ladies. And apparently it was to be disapproved of, but somehow in a knowing and titillating way that made your parents embarrassed if they caught you reading about it?
It was many years before I realised that the word had a broader meaning, and that it was actually a standard term for a method of obtaining other goods and services of a more reputable nature. Then, a few years later still, I realised that the difference was not as great as it might seem at first sight. I both uses of the word there were mysterious and secretive activities involved, nice people seemed wary of discussing it, and people often ended up getting screwed.
I should stress immediately that I am in totally favour of the use of ‘collective buying power’ approach to educational equipment purchasing. As a Yorkshireman and a taxpayer I am all for anything that will achieve financial savings for the school and, indirectly, my and your pockets. I spent years helping schools achieve savings in IT purchasing, either via sharing advice or even helping negotiate deals. What gave rise to most of the negativity that I observed online following the announcement was the mention of the 12% discount that is apparently being passed on to the schools via the scheme, if the pilot is anything to go by.
Now admittedly I hail from a different era, indeed a different century, when schools were measured on the number of computers they owned, and there were nationally funded schemes to provide ever more IT ‘kit’, as Bectans were prone to call it. Even in those far off days educational discounts were a highly-contested area, and suppliers would regularly undercut their published prices to secure contracts. Long after that era of national rollouts vanished, educational discounts were still a standard feature of the procurement landscape, and have remained so to the current day. Now 12% is undoubtedly better than nothing, but it is still an extremely low discount in the landscape of educational IT procurement and collective buying.
One major advantage of having local authorities, in the era when much of schools purchasing went via the authority, was the ‘collective buying power’ that was made possible by this arrangement. Of course one major disadvantage was that some LAs were not very good at negotiating procurement deals on behalf of their schools. The astute LAs managed to obtain discounts of around 25-30% on computer purchasing prices from reputable educational suppliers, whilst also retaining good warranty and related aspects to the deals. The less astute LAs arranged deals with poorer discounts, or with slightly dodgier suppliers that didn’t always bring value when it came to warranty and related aspects. But lest this be thought of purely as a justification for LA buying, can I hasten to add that a number of secondary schools also have had the ability to negotiate deals that matched those of the LA, even for just their own school’s purchases. Admittedly this has been less easy for primaries, but there have also been clusters or consortia of primaries where these sorts of deals were done. Some of the specialist secondary schools used to include their feeder primaries in their bulk-buying deals, and passed on the cost-saving directly to the primary. Nowadays of course we have multi-academy trusts that I know are quietly negotiating similar collective buying deals of around 25% discount for IT technologies. So this is not about harking back to a ‘golden age’ of LA schemes, but about obtaining best value for money for schools through collective buying power.
However the loss of LAs as a negotiator of ‘collective buying power’ has undoubtedly left a hole that needs to be filled if schools are to obtain good competitive pricing for their purchases. Particularly in the primary sector where the low volumes of purchases per school, and shortage of staff time and resources, make researching procurement and bargaining much more difficult. For the small primary with a need to purchase two or three iPads, the above government-endorsed route may seem attractive, particularly as iPad manufacturers Apple have always distanced themselves from the procurement rough and tumble. Apple offers discounts via their standardised educational discount scheme, and have been less open to bargaining at school level. The Apple education scheme also only seems to offer discounts of around 5-10% to staff at a UK educational institution, even when approaching Apple directly. However, even a quick visit to Amazon shows me that as a consumer I could obtain the model of iPad frequently purchased by schools at a much healthier 17% discount for just a one-off purchase of a single machine! With full Apple warranty in place, of course, so there must surely be better routes for school purchases of more iPads?
Now a number of reputable education technology suppliers are able to sell Apple equipment, including iPads. Frankly I would be amazed if a school seeking an educational discount were asked by them to purchase iPads at a price higher than those available to consumers on Amazon? So even if an individual school were to be purchasing a small number of iPads, I would undoubtedly recommend a call to a reputable equipment supplier to check pricing first?
Reading the second half of the DfE page indicates why this new scheme may not offer the levels of discount one might expect and hope for. This not a direct discounting deal with suppliers such as LAs may have negotiated, but a batch procurement exercise. CCS will gather up the orders, with a 500 minimum, then put these out to procurement tender. I admire the aims of the scheme, but anyone who has been involved with such a procurement and tendering model knows the administrative overheads that are incurred are high. There may be a host of good practice arguments and well-meant regulations which apply, but obtaining the keenest prices isn’t ever going to be one of the outcomes if all tendering costs are to be covered. When I worked as a civil servant the central government procurement route for IT was equally challenged, and frankly the service was held in contempt by many of those procuring equipment. They knew that one phone call to a recommended government supplier would have them offered purchase prices 20% below those listed via central procurement, with identical levels of warranty and support. Plus they had greater control over specifying the model configuration, timing and batch size of deliveries etc than the centralised scheme offered. In those days the whole central purchasing organisation was supported and funded by creaming a percentage off their turnover, so it is unsurprising that the bureaucratic costs were high – they were living on the margins, but not as we know it, Jim. I am sure things have improved these days, but I suspect not as much as one might wish or expect.
So, in short, my advice to any school considering purchasing tablets or any other type of IT equipment would be:
- Have you checked if your LA is one still offering good purchasing support and keen prices. Or, if in a MAT, whether they offer such support?
- Are there other schools with which you work who might wish to join you to give a larger volume purchase?
- Have you checked the discount that would be available to you at a reputable education supplier who distributes the make/s and model/s that you wish to purchase?
- When discussing purchases with your reputable education supplier, make sure you can tell them the discount already available to you, if purchasing directly online via consumer retailers, to ensure you get a good deal.
It seems ironic that systems meant to help guarantee best procurement practice and the spending of public monies seems to end up costing the public and education sectors higher prices than they could otherwise obtain. I do not seek to blame Crown Commercial Services or the DfE for what is, I suppose, a laudable attempt to bring the advantages of ‘collective buying power’ back into education in an attempt to fill the void left by the loss of LA deals. They may even over time improve on the 12% discount, though I doubt it on this model of purchase. But I do challenge the method used, which means that schools are facing yet another hidden rise in their overheads at a time when budgets are more challenged than ever.