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Jerry Meldrum, Pelican’s New Business Education Specialist, discusses the latest challenges in the education sector

Jerry’s worked within the educational sector for the last 12 years and, via his additional role as Chair of the Governing Board at Woodfield School, and Trustee role for Compass Learning Partnership, Jerry has first-hand knowledge of the challenges schools and MATs are facing in the coming years.

Schools were hit hard by the pandemic and were forced to adapt to a completely new way of working. As we moved through the various stages, schools adapted effectively to the point where now, Jerry says “most schools are functioning as close to normality as they can and are able to look ahead to the future”.

When it comes to the school meals offering, establishments are encouraging sit-down dining where space allows and distancing can be achieved, often employing means of pre-ordering with reduced menus to facilitate this. 

However, there has been an increased demand for sourcing Grab & Go pre-packaged options, driven by the pandemic, upcoming Natasha Law legislation and efficiency when taking into account reduced staffing levels. 

For catering teams in education, generally the coming year will be about recovering lost revenues, dealing with fractured supply chains – caused both by Covid and Brexit – and doing more with less. 

“They are looking to balance their budget next year, having seen their income drop significantly during covid and as trusts and schools look to regenerate unrestricted funds having had reduced income from both catering, lettings and other commercial activities”
As is being seen across the hospitality industry, in some cases, catering team numbers have reduced with furloughed staff finding alternative employment, so a lot of catering managers are seeking new ways to improve efficiency and looking for kitchen digital technology that will help them to remove paperwork and manual administrative processes. 

Meanwhile, catering managers are also feeling the pressures within distribution. Suppliers are struggling to manage the increased demand as the world reopens, and are also struggling to recruit staff, with schools now experience sporadic or late deliveries, reduced product ranges and very tight windows within which to order.”

Natasha’s Law challenges

The regulatory load is increasing, too, with Natasha’s Law coming in requiring improved tracing of ingredients and better labelling. 

“This requires a massive labour investment, and we’re so proud to offer our Pi System that includes Menu & Allergen Management modules, collecting allergen and nutrition data directly from suppliers. There’s a Food Checker that enables easy sharing of menu allergens, nutrition and calories with students, staff, parents, via mobile or website.”  

Catering teams are also increasingly feeling the pressure from leadership to demonstrate responsible spending and adequate processes of cost control, especially as MATs grow. This is highlighting how difficult this task can be when dealing with paper trails and not purchasing consistent products.

Jerry points to a 3-school MAT who, after the Pelican team had performed a pricing benchmark, found that each of the three schools were being charged vastly different prices for the exact same products from the same supplier – meaning that some schools were making a loss as they all charged the same for meals. These schools now use Pelican’s Pi e-procurement system, following on from a compliant procurement process, which maintains the agreed prices on products automatically across all three schools. 

This ensures consistent pricing and greater control over costs, with no schools now loss-making. “Schools are increasingly finding major price differences across sites, and the centralised system is far easier to audit and control”.

Going for growth

For senior leaders in the education sector, the key operational challenge coming up is driving for growth. “We’re seeing academy trusts growing into super trusts”, which may combine more than 25 individual schools. While not an explicit strategy at the government level, Jerry says, “it is being encouraged in the name of economies of scale, sharing best practice, and centralising resources.” 

As trusts grow, they are increasingly finding that areas of spending, previously dealt with at the school level, are surpassing government thresholds for spending and therefore need compliant purchasing. 

Jerry cites the case of a trust where, after very quick growth, it had not been realised that the annual spend in catering had entered into the millions of pounds with no procurement process in place to ensure compliance and, most of all, best value. 

Traditionally, commodity procurement is carried out at individual academy level occasionally with the support of framework agreements, with large service contracts being tendered. 

However, with larger and larger economies-of-scale as trusts grow, an impartial market testing exercise and bespoke tender procurement (taking into consideration all the products each school actually buys and the service levels they need) is a process many are now looking at when considering commodity purchases as this enables them to tailor their approach to support their operational and procurement strategy and also support local and regional suppliers whilst still obtaining best value from the market.

Demonstrating best value

The focus on savings and demonstrating best value has never been greater says Jerry, and trust boards are increasingly asking for evidence that goods are being purchased effectively as it ultimately gives a trust more money to spend on educating its children. 

Finance directors sometimes struggle to demonstrate the best value, as collecting data is time consuming, the benchmarking tools at their disposal are basic, and often price information is out of date. 

This is where technology can make a real difference. The Pi e-procurement system collects real-time data directly from suppliers’ invoices through EDI and provides real-time management reporting tools. This saves valuable time, everybody has access to one central point and uses the same data. Finance teams can track budget and spend per each school very easily and this is massively attractive for auditors and trustees! 

For Pelican, offering support to clients in this climate meant that we had to broaden our service to other non-food product purchasing categories to deliver desired cost-savings. 

“Increasingly we are now managing cleaning supplies, stationery, commercial equipment and other non-food categories. Our system developers are also very busy creating more features to make the work of finance, procurement and catering teams even easier.”

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