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It’s never too early to start planning when buying for your school


By Peter McMullan

Peter Mcmullan

Planning well ahead for all your buying needs in the current economic climate is a must when buying for your school. 

If you need to procure goods and services for works planned during the schools’ holidays, you can still start the process well in advance. Public sector buying organisations like ours always see an increased demand in the lead up to key holidays periods such as easter and summer holidays. This spike in demand can sometimes mean that suppliers are overwhelmed by the volume of invitations to tender and won’t always have the capacity to bid for everything that comes their way. To avoid these busy periods you can, and should, start as early as possible to allow yourself bids from the widest range of suppliers.  

You should start the planning process by drawing up a timeline. This will provide a prompt for each of the key steps in the procurement process and will ensure you haven’t forgotten anything.   

Maintaining a contracts register for existing supply agreements is an excellent way of identifying future procurement requirements.CPC advise you to consider allowing 6-12 months to procure high value/strategically important procurements. Your timeline should include the following key milestones:   

  • Internal stakeholder engagement 
  • Pre-market engagement 
  • Completion of specification 
  • Complete tender documentation 
  • Date for publication of tender 
  • Last date for supplier questions/queries  
  • Tender return date  
  • Evaluation period  
  • Approval of recommendations 
  • Intention to award letters and feedback 
  • 10-day standstill (if applicable, standstill isn’t required when calling-off a framework, but can often be seen as best practice and only applies outside of frameworks when procuring over OJEU thresholds)  
  • Award date (a timetable should include implementation/lead-in time and commencement/duration steps as well. If insufficient time is allowed for mobilisation by the supplier/contractor, this can often be a cause for suppliers not competing for the business) 

The importance of pre-market engagement 

The buying process should always start with pre-market engagement – time spent on this is time well spent.  

Pre-Market engagement is a good opportunity to warm up and increase your knowledge of the market. It is a signal to suppliers that you will soon be issuing an invitation to tender (ITT) or further competition and that you will be looking for quotes and responses from them. It will help you learn about the goods, services and suppliers in the marketplace and help you to finetune and finalise your specification. It can also identify typical purchasing behaviours as well as potential problems or challenges you might face (such as lack of supplier capacity and supply and demand challenges), offer new innovative solutions and help identify other interested parties or stakeholders you ought to include. It can reduce the time spent on clarification questions and will ensure that there is a market for your procurements needs. 

As a rule, you should allow 1 to 2 weeks for pre-market engagement, but it will depend on the complexity of your needs. You should provide all suppliers with the same questions and information to be fair and transparent. You must be clear that this exercise is for planning purposes only and for no quotes or proposals to be offered at this stage of the procurement process. Once the deadline is up for talking to suppliers, no further market engagement should take place.  

Another key element of the pre-market engagement process is to determine an evaluation criterion in terms of quality and quantitative elements (i.e. pricing). Buying organisations will need to strike a balance between quality and pricing criteria to reflect their priorities and objectives. 

Hopefully, this pre-market engagement will have geared up the market suppliers ready for the publication of your tender and helped you to shape the requirements and specification. 

Providing a quality specification 

Giving suppliers insufficient information to enable them respond to your Invitation to Tender (ITT) could make your request unattractive to a supplier who may then decline to bid Therefore, before you send your specification out, ask yourself whether it is detailed enough for suppliers to provide a comprehensive response. Have you used all the insight that you have gained from your pre-market engagement? Use templates if you can and look at best practice examples. 

It's worth noting that offering commitment to suppliers rather than spot purchasing could make you a more attractive customer to suppliers and therefore increase both the number and competitiveness of quotes received. You should consider this within your specification.  

Give the supplier sufficient time to respond 

Giving suppliers sufficient time to respond is more likely to attract a quality response. Insufficient deadlines can result in poor quality quotes, or suppliers may not submit a bid at all, potentially compromising your tender exercise.  

The timescales to allow for supplier responses will vary depending on the complexity of the requirement. Best practice procurement suggests a minimum of 2 weeks from issuing the Request for Quotation (RFQ) to receipt of supplier bids. A longer timescale will be needed for more complex requirements, such as those that involve a supplier site visit prior to bid submission. We would recommend a minimum of 5 weeks for suppliers to respond to an ITT for these more complex types of procurement, or longer if possible.  

You should build extra time into your schedule if purchasing during a busy period, for example; for a 1st August delivery deadline, or over Christmas or bank holidays. Suppliers may not hold stock if the volume required is high and will need time to seek and confirm delivery dates.  

The evaluation period 

Once your RFQ period closes, you will then begin the process of evaluating proposals received from potential suppliers against your stated evaluation criteria. It is good practice to document your evaluation process via an evaluation matrix where responses can be assessed and scored against your advertised criteria, e.g., qualitative elements like service delivery, account management, innovation, social value, etc; as well as quantitative elements like pricing schedules. Managing your evaluation in a structured manner will ensure that your process retains the core principles of openness, transparency and fairness. When utilising a framework agreement for your procurement process, Public Sector Buying Organisations (PSBO’s) will often provide end users with an evaluation template to facilitate the comparison of bids received.  

It can be frustrating when a low volume of bids is received. Suppliers have various reasons as to why they do not bid for an opportunity, for example the supplier might be having capacity issues and is unable to take on the additional workload, or the opportunity is of such low value that the supplier cannot make a profit on it. We will always request to suppliers that they provide feedback where they choose to not bid, although undertaking a pre-market engagement exercise should mitigate any surprises here. 

It is best practice for both parties to provide feedback following an RFQ as it may help guide future procurement exercises. You should provide feedback which should focus around the bidders response in comparison to the evaluation criteria. Bidders aren’t scored in comparison to other bids received, they are scored against the stated evaluation criteria. 

The Get help buying for schools team are on hand to support your school or trust’s buying needs and help you navigate this process. Working closely with ourselves, (CPC) and other PSBOs, the team can help you buy compliantly, save you time and help you secure great value for your school 

You can also follow the  ‘Buying for Schools’ LinkedIn page for all the latest information, events and webinars on offer to help you with your buying. 

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