Social care, mental health support, counselling: these days, schools are expected to provide it all. Often, this means commissioning external services to improve outcomes for the most disadvantaged students. The question is, how should schools make sure that they are spending their money wisely?
While the National Audit Office offers general guidance on commissioning for public services, little is aimed specifically at schools. This is something that the non-profit thinktank the Young Foundation hopes to address with a new guide to commissioning services for schools, released today.
“The guide draws on best practice from other sectors, such as health and social care, to put forward a set of principles and practical steps for schools to follow when commissioning innovative services to improve provision and close the attainment gap for pupils across the board,” says the foundation’s chief executive, Helen Goulden.
So, what do these practical steps look like? The guide divides the commissioning process into six key stages.
Before schools commission a service, they need a clear, evidence-based understanding of the issue they are trying to address, and what might be causing it. Most schools will do this as part of their day-to-day evaluation of student progress, but making sure what you think you know is really true before you spend the cash is important, says Amanda Hill-Dixon, senior researcher at the Young Foundation and a co-author of the report.
She says schools should draw on a range of quantitative and qualitative data sources to explore barriers to learning and determine why some groups of students are underachieving relative to others.
One of the most effective ways for schools to understand the reasons behind need, says Hill-Dixon, is to compare their outcomes with those of similar schools. “As well as highlighting unmet needs, this can provide an avenue for schools to identify suitable improvement strategies and interventions,” she says.
Once need has been identified, the next stage is planning how to meet it, considering both internal and external options, and thinking about capability, capacity and cost.
If it is deemed that an external solution is most suitable, a bespoke commissioning plan should be drawn up. The Young Foundation guide provides a template plan, which includes: who the target audience is, what the timescale and budget will be, who should be responsible for overseeing implementation, the evaluation strategy and success criteria.
To make sure that the plan does not become too unwieldy, Hill-Dixon recommends deciding on a “limited number of intended outcomes” for any commission and making sure that these are aligned with your school improvement plan.
Now it is time to choose a service. Having a “confidence framework” of questions that you can ask yourself when comparing services can be useful. These might include:
* Can the service provide evidence of impact?
* If not, which may be the case with highly innovative and early stage services, is there evidence from elsewhere that this type of intervention is likely to be effective, such as from the Education Endowment Foundation (EEF)?
* Are the benefits of the service likely to outweigh the costs?
All contracting should also be aligned to UK and EU public procurement policy (see bit.ly/ProcurementPolicy), including the principles of value for money, non-discrimination, equal treatment, transparency, mutual recognition and proportionality.
Deciding on the service is only half the battle; for many school leaders, the biggest concern in commissioning services is to fund them.
“School budgets across sectors and regions are in a perilous state,” says Sarah Wild, headteacher of Limpsfield Grange School in Surrey. “Some schools are struggling to provide student access to basic entitlements, such as a five-day taught week or access to a timetable delivered by qualified teachers. Quite simply, commissioning additional services will require additional funding.”
This is an issue that the Young Foundation also recognises. But it points out that “there are instances in which commissioning innovative projects can open up new avenues of funding, be cheaper than alternatives, enable efficiency savings by ‘doing more with less’ and enable cost avoidance”.
Schools should seek value for money by negotiating with providers, seeking matched funding and exploring the possibility of commissioning together with other schools to achieve an economy of scale.
If you get the money together and find the right provider, the hard work really begins: implementation. “One of the key principles we recommend is that commissioning processes are proportionate to the size and importance of the commission in question,” says Hill-Dixon, who also advises taking a collaborative approach to implementation, working closely with the provider to “limit the work” that this places on schools.
Discussions should happen about balancing the need to implement a service in a way that is faithful to its core design, while tailoring and adapting its “surface features” to the particular school context.
You also need to decide how services will be sustained in the long term.
Although the responsibility for monitoring and evaluating the effectiveness of services lies with providers, schools play an important role in demanding that the organisations provide this evidence.
To help schools to do this effectively, Hill-Dixon has some suggestions. “Identify and agree intended outcomes of the service,” she says. “These should be specific, realistic and not confused with outputs, which are what a service does, rather than what it achieves.”
Schools should also create a robust plan for how these outcomes will be measured, by whom and when. Wherever possible, this should draw on existing data or impact tools to “limit the burden on staff”. And, Hill-Dixon adds, “for the most robust evaluations, draw on the expertise and advice of support organisations, such as the EEF, Project Oracle or the Young Academy.”
Emma Clarke is a freelance writer. Commissioning Futures is available to download from the Young Foundation website at bit.ly/CommissioningFutures