Masterclass - Managing suppliers - Looking to the source

15th May 2009 at 01:00
Managing suppliers needn't be hard. By voicing expectations early on and forming a dynamic relationship, you'll both benefit

To meet your school's overall development plan, you'll be working with many external suppliers over the years; from caterers and contractors to grounds maintenance and ICT managed service providers. As educationalists, putting your business hat on to manage these relationships and achieve the desired outcomes can sometimes be a daunting and frustrating experience.

The first thing to bear in mind is that suppliers are not teachers. Regardless of their previous experience, every school is different and there is not a one-size-fits-all solution to your needs. It is therefore important that your school's leadership team creates a brief based on clear outcomes before you begin to engage with companies. Many suppliers will have preconceived ideas about the needs of your school before they've seen your brief, so this time must be invested early to avoid confusion.

Every supplier you use has to understand the needs of your staff and pupils so the decision should never be made upon cost alone. Best value can only be achieved if a supplier can meet your needs, so meeting them to discuss your requirements, costs and deliverables will help you ascertain whether they are going to be right for you.

Trust is a key factor in success. But remember that suppliers should be there to help you innovate and improve learning, so to make this happen you need to set clear targets. Suppliers have to understand that schools operate differently from commercial businesses and timescales have to be met. Think of the utter chaos created by a contractor unable to complete agreed work before the end of the summer holidays.

However time consuming, building in time for the school's management to oversee work is important, so you should plan as far ahead as possible to ensure staff absence can be managed. To help this in our school, we've employed one of our retired teachers to be a project manager, which works well.

Ultimately, we employ external companies to improve our offering to pupils, so for suppliers to challenge as well as support you, there has to be a two-way relationship. Make the supplier feel that they're a key stakeholder in the school and communicate with them regularly. We have our own point of contact in our managed service provider, Northgate Education. We've built a good relationship as we trust that any issues are listened to and dealt with.

Transparency and openness is important for every supplier you choose to work with so make sure you stipulate from the outset that you require one-to-one contact. This is important when dealing with commercial companies that have specialist departments. Without named contacts, sorting any problems can become difficult.

Ensure your supplier can be flexible and adapt to your needs and requirements. Even if over time, you require something outside the initial contract, or the supplier's remit, they should be open to investigating how they can extend their offer, perhaps by sub-contracting some of the work. If a supplier can't deliver what you want, you must be assertive and ask for specialist involvement.

Finally, don't forget that your local authority is there to help on a strategic level when selecting and working with suppliers.

Pam Jones is headteacher at Ifield School in Kent.

Next week: Handling middle managers.


- Engage early with prospective suppliers.

- Ensure you share your challenges and vision and listen to what suppliers can offer you.

- Be clear and firm about stating your desired outcomes.

- Visit other schools using the supplier.

- Always insist upon a designated point of contact within the supplier organisation.

- Do not engage with suppliers alone; involve your stakeholders (governors, PTA etc).

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