Suppliers

If you want to supply to the education sector, or you are looking for a supplier, it can appear to be a huge maze that you have to navigate, but these links will give you some shortcuts that may be helpful. There are also plenty of other suppliers out there who will not be covered by these routes, so this page is not intended to be exhaustive.

Government Procurement Service

The Office of Government Commerce was for a long time been the centre of advice for tendering to Government and the wider public sector, but its work was moved on 15 June 2010 to the Cabinet Office Government Efficiency area, along with the public sector procurement agency, Buying Solutions, now known as the Government Procurement Service. Government procurement is currently (November 2011) undergoing a number of reviews and you should check for the latest position on the Cabinet Office website.

Local Authority purchasing

Traditionally Local Authorities (LAs) were a prime route into supplying schools but as the number of academies and free schools grows it is unclear the extent to which Local Authorities will be supplying directly or indirectly to schools and where local ad hoc and other consortia may be formed.

British Educational Suppliers Association (BESA)

BESA is the main trade association with over 300 members and covering early years through to FE. BESA has been a long-term supporter of the BETT and Education Shows (see below).

British Universities Finance Directors Group

This organisation now includes the Association of University Procurement Officers.

Higher Education Funding Council for England

Tendering and competitive purchasing

Competitive purchasing

Public sector procurement usually involves some form of competitive purchasing, but the terminology often gets misused and ‘tendering’ may be used as shorthand for any of these procedures. For low value projects the purchasing authority may allow email/telephone and/or written quotations (usually a minimum of three).

Tendering

At higher values there may be a formal tender, which would involve sealed bids and often a multi-stage process including some pre-qualification (which may be a submission, questionnaire, suppliers visits, depending on the service or product to be supplied and the purchasing authority).

EU tenders

At a higher level still, where projects are above the European Union set thresholds, formal EU tendering procedures have to be followed by law. EU procedures can be very lengthy and must be fully transparent and are open to legal challenge, so if you are following this route it is important to know exactly what you are doing.

To give more flexibility, many purchasing authorities will use ‘framework contracts’. This is where suppliers are contracted normally for around three to five years, though this is dependent on the terms of the contract being let. The framework contract is often based on a theoretical level of supply and rates and then when a specific project comes up only suppliers appointed to the framework are invited to bid. This means a simpler and quicker quotation route can be used which can be advantageous to both supplier and purchaser. However, one criticism of this route is that new suppliers cannot easily get on a framework, once let, and in an area where there is a lot of technological change the framework suppliers may not offer the best and latest solutions available, especially as the framework reaches its later years.

EU procurement thresholds

EU procurement thresholds depend on the goods/services to be supplied. At 2010 the small lots threshold for public contracts started at £64,846 and supplies and services at £101,323, net of VAT. Rates are published on the Official Journal of the European Union (‘OJEC’: so called because it has been around since the EU was the EC)  and and you should generally veer on the side of caution. Check the ‘aggregation rule’: the thresholds usually cover the whole period of the contract, so if you let a contract for £30,000 over four years the total value is £120,000 which is above the £101,323 threshold.

Value for money

There is a myth that competitive purchasing/tenders mean you have to select the supplier who offers the lowest cost. This is simply not true, you are generally looking for the best value for money (VFM)and that is not always the cheapest.

However, the contract should be awarded on transparent criteria which are (a) published when the specification is issued and (b) followed scrupulously. You cannot change the goal posts half way through, so getting this right is one of the real skills of competitive purchasing. An innocent mistake in this area may be perceived as corruption elsewhere.

If you are part of a larger organisation or group, do check if there are other published procurement procedures/policies you must adhere to.

You also need to think about many other criteria including the full life costs of the project, in-house versus bought-in supply and how you cost out your internal overheads: procurement is a specialist area and if you are not familiar with it, do take proper advice.

The Chartered Institute of Purchasing and Supply is the professional body to consult in this area.

Trade shows

These are the main trade shows for suppliers, there may be smaller ones too.

For key dates see the events calendar.

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