Retail therapy

27th June 2003 at 01:00
Laurence Pollock on navigating your way through the sea-change of contracting

LOCAL management of schools arrived more than a decade ago, part of the drive to decentralise and cut back on bureaucracy.

Ideally, it meant no more tedious wrangles with county hall about fitting a new sliding bolt to cubicle three of the boys' toilets.

But LMS went beyond a lick of paint. Gradually, a whole raft of services, from advice on human resources and appointments to finance, IT, training, and health and safety were available to buy, including larger maintenance and construction projects.

For governing bodies, devolved or delegated spending meant more challenges.

It was easy to sign up for a "buy-back" from county hall. Instead of the local education authority giving you services, it gave you money, you gave it the money back, and then it gave you the services.

Today, however, the picture is cloudier. As recipients of public money there is an increasing obligation on governors to ask if it is being spent wisely. And sometimes, if governors do buy back, they are no longer dealing with the LEA but a company providing services on its behalf.

The Department for Education and Skills' guidance (DfES 05472001, Purchasing Guide for Schools) says schools are free to choose suppliers.

While most will continue to buy back from LEAs, ever more services will be offered by a "variety of alternative providers from the public, private and voluntary sectors". The guide explains the principles of best value (rigorously applied in local government) and the three Es - economy, efficiency and effectiveness.

But many governors may still be unsure. Steve Adamson, acting chair of the National Association of Governors and Managers, says it is difficult. "I find it worrying that governors are being cast adrift on choppy waters. It is hard to know where to look. Our only advice is be careful and do not assume that all the advice you should be getting will come from the LEA."

But it is not rocket science, says Mike Green, professional development project manager at the Open University business school. He has provided training for not-for-profit managers and also served as a parent governor at Wetherby high school, West Yorkshire. Green advises governors who want to develop long-term relationships with alternative suppliers.

"They need to develop skills - often they have them in other areas of life - and not be mesmerised by the educational context. Governing bodies have wonderful people who do not bring their skills to meetings."

He adds: "Headteachers may not be able to help because many did not come into education to be business managers."

For governors who want to stick with the LEA there is a new factor in some areas. For instance, in Bedfordshire, Hyder Business Services (HBS) is two years into a "strategic partnership" with the county. Schools will be dealing with HBS when it comes to buy-back.

Raza Khan, HBS's director of educational and business services in the county, says: "We run regular forums so that schools can feed back and we produce service levels agreements that give a pretty detailed breakdown of what schools will get and what the services will cost. If schools find it difficult to choose, we will find a consultant."

But Khan admits that feedback from schools about services is not put into the public domain.

Rina Persaud, a parent governor at Cranfield lower school in Bedfordshire, has a different perspective, however: "HBS has atrocious customer service.

They do not like us telling them that service was bad. People are complaining to them all the time. You are given tight deadlines for buy back and there is not enough time to look at what is in the market."

An HBS spokesman said: "We have ongoing dialogue with our customers and feedback is generally positive. Any complaints we do receive are logged and dealt with. Where we do receive complaints we treat them very seriously."

He added: "I think this (shortage of time) is more a criticism of other potential providers who perhaps do not communicate what they are offering at the time decisions are made. We give schools the option to change the range of services they buy at any time during the year."

HBS also see its relations with schools in a particular way. Raza Khan suggests it is heads and the professional staff who do the market analysis, leaving governors to rubber-stamp their decisions.

But Lionel Stewart, chair of the Bedfordshire Association of Governing Bodies, believes this shows that HBS does not understand education or the role of governors.

"They have not done their groundwork. If you have a good inclusive school with governors, staff, headteacher and parents working together, everyone is aware of what is going on."

If governors at stand-alone schools find it tough buying from the market place, the growth of learning communities with pyramids of schools may offer salvation. There will be the resources to develop a more sophisticated purchasing policy and to deal with contractors.

But individual schools who participate will be part of a broader services'

"bureaucracy" and governors may, once again, need someone's agreement before the sliding bolt on cubicle three can be replaced.

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