Yusuf Erol FCCA, director, public sector, Langbrook Finance

West Sussex County Council (WSCC) has achieved something extraordinary. It has led a procurement exercise for a modern management information system (MIS) and finance software system for its 200-plus maintained schools.

This project has the agreement of all the schools, which will be using a new, modern, cloud-based MIS and finance system purchased by their local authority (LA) before the end of 2022.

LAs have an essential role in school procurement, and the WSCC project could – and should – result in others following their lead. There are challenges, however.

The challenges

Procurement support provided to schools – and, indeed LA relationships with locally maintained schools – is not consistent across England, despite the legal framework (see panel).

Some LAs have a very close relationship with locally maintained schools where there are shared systems. For example, in some, the school’s finance system is an extension of the finance system used at the LA and schools are seen as ‘cost centres’. Other LAs take a very minimalistic view of their role when it comes to locally maintained schools and operate a skeleton education structure, including for finance.

Procurement support provided to schools is not consistent across the country

The legal position

Locally maintained schools have authority over managing their financial resources. Local authorities (LAs) can intervene if there are concerns over school performance and financial management. So, if a maintained school is performing well, and there is no reason to suspect any financial mismanagement, LAs do not have any say over financial decisions.

LAs must set out the financial relationship between them and the schools they maintain. If an LA diverges from the legislative framework, this needs to be consulted on with all locally maintained schools and approved by the local school’s forum.

Schools are required to share information from their registers with the LA, including when a pupil’s name is added to or deleted from the admission register outside of standard transition times, and the details of any pupil who fails to attend school regularly or has missed 10 days or more.

LAs may seek more frequent or comprehensive sharing of data where it is essential to fulfilling their obligations under the Education Acts and the expectations set out in central government guidance.

These differences in relationship mean different levels of procurement support provided to schools. It also means different approaches are taken to data collection and management information. But I believe that there is a case for LAs to get involved in group procurement of IT, including finance MIS systems and finance software, for locally maintained schools.

When I think about the seven principles of public life, one of my interpretations of acting in the public interest includes LA officers providing support to schools that do not have the expertise that LAs have. Supporting schools to improve their effectiveness will always be ‘acting in the public interest’.

LA leaders in education, finance, procurement and IT should all care about this – not only because of the principle but also because of the direct benefits to the LA.

Supporting schools to improve their effectiveness will always be ‘acting in the public interest’

The rewards

If LAs managed the group procurement for MIS and finance services centrally on behalf of locally LA-maintained schools, the benefits would include:

  • financial savings for schools by combining their resources (WSCC schools saved around 46% on licence costs, according to G Cloud)
  • more organised transition for central LA MIS and finance support teams, which might provide more financial certainty for LAs and help for data managers
  • more relevant expertise for LAs in undertaking a thorough analysis of schools’ current technology stacks, which could be used to undertake a total-cost-of-ownership analysis to maximise savings
  • potential financial savings that go way beyond the licence cost savings; some cite revenue savings in excess of £10,000 per annum for an average-sized primary school
  • lower device replacement costs, as technologies such as virtualisation can potentially extend devices’ lifespans.

In short, the benefits are not simply financial; the LA can also efficiently receive required school data and the likelihood of intervention is reduced. It also puts an end to fragmented systems, and the associated costs in designing workarounds and recruiting staff to manage the less-streamlined systems.

My suggestion to senior managers in LA finance, IT and procurement departments is to approach schools with the offer of running a project similar to WSCC’s.

More information

See Yusuf Erol’s white paper on this subject, including the West Sussex County Council case study