The education procurement landscape has changed significantly since the days when schools were tightly controlled by local authorities. While they are still responsible for the distribution of funding, local authorities no longer control how schools spend their money.

Nowadays, a school runs much more like a business. For suppliers to the education market, this means there are exciting opportunities to sell into the sector. But selling to schools is very different to other businesses and consumer selling. There are some unique hurdles to navigate, such as the education supplier framework, and it is not always easy to establish who exactly is doing the buying.

This blog explains how procurement in education works, and who makes the buying decisions, plus some great tips on how to sell to schools.

Procurement in education

As public sector organisations, all maintained and academy schools have a duty to follow best practice in procurement. This means obtaining the best value for money from any contract they agree to – and this doesn’t necessarily mean at the cheapest price.

Schools are encouraged to buy goods and services via the government’s framework agreement but can also get bids or quotes from external suppliers, or run a Public Contracts Regulations (PCR) compliant buying process. You don’t have to be listed on the educational supplier framework to sell to schools, but it can help enormously, especially for bigger contracts. You can find out more about the buying procedures and procurement law for schools here.

A new initiative, ‘Get Help Buying for Schools’ is being launched this autumn (2022), following a successful pilot in two regions where £19.4m was saved on non-staff spend across 2,000 schools. The scheme is designed to help schools efficiently deliver value for money when buying goods and services.

What is an educational supplier framework?

An education supplier framework is a list of approved suppliers that have been through a robust procurement process. The Schools Commercial Team (SCT) within the Department for Education (DfE) reviews the range of frameworks and is responsible for adding suppliers to the list. You can view the list of procurement frameworks for schools here.

The frameworks enable schools to bypass some of the usual procurement processes, saving time, cutting red tape, and guaranteeing value for money.

Should I be listed in Education Supplier Directories?

Despite schools having greater autonomy with their purchasing decisions, around 70% of schools still use the approved framework listings to source some of their supplies, according to Incensu. If you’re not listed, it doesn’t mean you are excluded from the running. It just means if you decide to side-step the supplier framework, you might have to work harder at getting your pitch heard.

How to become part of a DfE-approved framework?

To get listed on a framework as a supplier, you will need to go through a tendering process. Find out more about tendering for public sector contracts here.

How to best use a procurement framework?

If you make it onto the supplier framework, great, but it doesn’t guarantee contracts. Schools will put in a specification for which you (and other suppliers) will have to provide a quote. Schools then decide. They can directly award a contract or hold a mini competition where you may be asked to provide more information and pitch against other companies that sell to schools. Clean branding on quotations, and providing succinct but useful information at all stages, is imperative to get yourself noticed.

Who makes buying decisions in schools?

The person responsible for procurement in schools varies between establishments. In some schools, buying decisions will be made by the head teacher, in others, it will be the responsibility of the school business manager or a school business professional.

In most primary schools, buying decisions will be made by the head teacher. The procurement process in secondary schools differs, where spending responsibility is a lot more devolved. For academy trusts which run several schools, there may be a central office role dedicated purely to procurement, which may implement its own procurement framework.

Schools are under huge pressure to make savings and as they often talk to each other, collaborative purchasing to make cost savings is also gaining traction. This is an important selling point for existing suppliers when pitching to other schools.

How long is the buying cycle in schools?

The buying cycle in schools varies widely between schools and within schools for different products and services. Contracts don’t all get signed on the same day at the beginning of a school year! And some contracts (take minibuses, for example) might be for a lease of two or three years.

The best advice is to build up a log of when contracts are coming to an end and ascertain the right lead-in time to put your business forward for consideration when the contract is up for grabs. This could be a short window, so precision marketing is key.

Remember, many schools will let contracts roll over, so you’ll need to prove you have something better to offer.

How to sell services to schools?

Selling educational services to schools is tricky and especially difficult if the services are deemed non-compulsory. A case study on selling non-compulsory educational services to schools highlighted inconsistent funding as particularly challenging.

It is vital that you market your product in the right way. Our top tips for marketing to schools will help.

Selling to private schools

Once you move away from the maintained sector, the process of selling to schools becomes more aligned to usual business sales. Independent schools (or groups of schools) will make their own buying decisions, so it is all about finding the decision-maker. Whilst some private schools will have school business managers with wide-ranging roles, you will also find some schools with dedicated senior staff for each discipline, such as a head of marketing and a finance director.

One main difference between selling to an independent school and a small business is that you will need to be aware of their child safety checks and procedures.

Our top tips on how to sell to schools

Communication is key when selling to schools

Choosing your communication channel to make a good first impression is key. Hard selling to schools is a no-no. Teachers and school staff are incredibly busy, so cold-calling or persistent phone calls aren’t recommended.

In a recent survey of teachers and school staff, email was the method of communication from education businesses they were most likely to reply/react to.

Email is an effective and unobtrusive way to introduce yourself and your business. Including a call to action is important. Free trials or free guides can capture attention and make engagement with your email worthwhile. Offering something for free is enticing and positions you as a helpful expert.

Do your research

Before you make contact, deepen your understanding of the school’s mission, and apply this to the problems your solution or product will help solve.

Listen to schools when selling your products

Be prepared to listen at your first meeting or scheduled call where you get to showcase your solution. This is your opportunity to better understand the school’s unique needs. Making a good impression and building a connection is key.

Timing can be vital

There’s also the question of when certain products or services suddenly become more relevant to schools. Portable device technology and AIed (AI in education) have seen remarkable growth since the pandemic, enabling distance learning during lockdowns. Being ready when opportunities arise is key for sellers looking to break into the education market.

Stay up to date

Education authority procurement has moved on in recent years. Knowing how to sell your product to schools is key and this process will continue to evolve, so keeping up with legislation, pilot schemes and how school procurement operates is essential.

Events and exhibitions

There are lots of education trade shows, events and exhibitions throughout the year that education influencers attend. Whether you are selling educational products or services, these events are a great platform for raising awareness about your business. If you are selling software to schools, tech-specific trade shows are a must.

At GovNet, we continue to build a strong portfolio of specialist exhibitions and conferences dedicated to the education sector, including The Schools and Academies Show, The EdTech Summit, The Higher Education Conference, Skills & Employability Summit, The Independent Schools Conference, and many more, including hundreds of training courses through Inside Government.

Download our education brochure or request a meeting with the team today