APSE’s latest research - written in collaboration with CIPFA - looks at the position regarding the provision of a selection of discretionary support services to schools by local authorities.
A new report by APSE ‘Selling Services to Schools: Facing the Future’ which was written and researched by CIPFA, finds that there are risks associated with the fragmentation of services as a result of academies, free schools and the declining role of local education authorities (LEAs). It suggests that this presents a number of risks as relationships between the schools sector and local authority service providers are increasingly fragmented as a result of regulatory and funding changes, and structural changes to education provision.
A key finding of the research is that services to schools are increasingly marketised, with procurement decisions made by governing bodies, often driven by price, and in isolation to a broader consideration of managing the school estate holistically; this, the report argues, can undermine quality considerations and lead to a loss of professional knowledge and skills. This has destabilised the natural connections between high performing local authority support services to schools and the education sector itself.
By contrast, local authority services to schools were found to provide value for money, flexible and responsive services. Furthermore, high quality standards are often accompanied by a more ethical, environmental and socially responsible means of delivering support services to schools, which are vital to the functioning of a well-performing school environment.
Speaking about the report APSE Chief Executive Paul O’Brien said, “The good management of functions like water testing, electrical safety, building and grounds maintenance, school cleaning and school meals, which comply with nutritional guidance, are crucial to educational establishments. These should not be considered bargain basement purchases but a vital part of keeping pupils, teachers and school-based staff safe and well. It is time to reconsider the real value of these services”.
Tim Reade, Head of Property Advisory Services at CIPFA warned, “We all recognise that change happens and there is a need for the public sector to be responsive and flexible when providing services to schools. However, it is vital to the future of a well-performing school environment that we avoid decisions driven by price alone. This can undermine the functioning of the schools estate and lead to vital services declining in quality. It is a model that leads to increased risk, which is often not adequately accounted for in procurement decisions at a school level.”
The report also finds that school support services are increasingly expected to function as traded services; de facto business units that sell services to schools. It found that the commercial functioning of support services to schools can create a conflict between the objectives of local councils in supporting social justice outcomes in local economies and a price-driven culture in the procurement functions of schools and academies and MATs. This can raise questions of subsidy, and support in areas such as the Living Wage, with many school support staff being relatively low-paid part-time women workers.
The report also finds that to re-establish the connections with schools as the preferred service provider or to maintain their existing school-client base, the schools support sector faces a number of challenges. The report makes a number of specific recommendations to the schools support sector which includes:-
Strategy: The local authority should have a clear and unambiguous plan in the services it provides to the schools sector ensuring that its business plan reflects the now market-driven relationship with schools.
Political Buy In: Ensuring that councillors are aware of and support the strategy for local authority providers selling support services to schools, particularly where this involves trading arrangements or joint ventures, and the parameters of those arrangements.
Delivery models: Local authorities must establish what services are to be provided, the extent of the existing or proposed client base and whether a separate trading company or joint venture is the best way forward. This should never be regarded as automatically the case and consideration to the existing powers and benefits of a well-functioning in-house service team will be essential.
Current Service Provision: This should be objectively and regularly reviewed to ensure that services currently provided to schools are regarded as excellent and can demonstrate that they are cost effective, reliable, and are undertaken by trained and competent staff.
Relationships: Local authorities should work hard on maintaining or establishing a good relationship with their schools. Governors and school leaders seek support services which are responsive, reliable and represent good value for money. It is essential that all parties work collaboratively to determine how local authority provided support services to schools can help meet current and future needs for the schools estate.
Highlight the positives: Local authorities should promote themselves and shouldn’t be afraid to extol the virtues that they potentially have. This includes:
Costs and risks: Local authorities should know the true cost of providing services which should include accurate accounting of overheads and ancillary costs and should establish the level of risk associated with the services being provided as well as establishing what their services are worth in the market place; this may include an assessment of the social value of local authority provided services including the local employment opportunities and the opportunities for economies of scale as providers across the local area.
Skills and capacity: Local authorities should ensure that staff in service areas are not only equipped with the right technical knowledge but also have appropriate commercial skills to operate in a competitive environment using specialists where needed.
Develop an extended customer base: If capacity allows local authorities should continually look to extend their customer base, providing services to other organisations and, where appropriate, other local authorities.
Monitor review and adapt: Local authorities should continually review services and the systems being used to provide them with the aim of ensuring that these arrangements enable schools to access services in an efficient and effective way with the aim of continuously raising standards and improve the life chances for children and young people.
Notes to editors
APSE is the Association for Public Service Excellence; a not-for-profit body working with over 300 UK-wide local councils
CIPFA is the Chartered Institute of Public Finance and Accountancy, the only professional accountancy body in the world exclusively dedicated to public finance.