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In this article, Sally Cox, Catering Manager for the Vale Academy Trust, shares her experience of centralising food purchasing and supply chain management across an entire trust and the benefits they now receive as a result.


Back in 2013, the Vale Academy Trust (VAT) was formed, which saw three schools come together to work in partnership: the ‘outstanding’ rated King Alfred’s Academy, Charlton Primary School and Wantage CE Primary School.  The original aim was to benefit from a partnership approach, enabling schools to share best practice, while centralising many key ‘back office’ services such as finance, HR, legal support and premises.

This approach has worked well and, today, the VAT has expanded further and now incorporates seven schools in total. In all, the trust serves over 4,000 students ranging from primary to sixth form across 14 different sites, with over 600 supporting members of staff.

Sally Cox is the trust’s Catering Manager and, having originally joined King Alfred’s nine years ago, her role has expanded in line with the VAT’s growth. Today, she is responsible for her team’s delivery of over 2000 meals every day and the logistics, menu planning and budgetary control required to make this happen takes a great deal of careful planning.

We interviewed Sally Cox to hear how she coordinates the catering function to deliver the right meals, at the right time, for the right budget, particularly at a time when faced with increasing pressures to deliver good quality meals amidst a backdrop of continually rising commodity prices.

How to gain control 

“I have worked here for almost a decade – originally as Catering Manager for King Alfred’s and now for all schools that are within the trust.  It is my responsibility to manage the catering function for the group, which is a fantastic role yet, as the trust has grown, it has brought with it various new challenges for me to address, from general supplier logistics, to menu management and cost control.

When the trust launched, we’d taken the decision to centralise the purchasing of our food so, rather than each site having to manage its ordering, deliveries and supplier logistics, everything would be managed by me.  Over time however, as the trust has expanded, I was finding that the operational management was becoming cumbersome.  All invoices would come to me, which I would need to review and check against agreed prices, before authorising and sending to finance for payment.  However, with the increasing volumes of invoices I was worried that things might start to get missed.

At this stage, about two years’ ago, I started to look into what systems were out there that would help me and I came across a firm called Pelican Procurement Services.  Their system, Pelican Pi, offered the centralised control I was after and it includes a level of automation that would replace the need for manual processes.

As well as gaining greater control of general operations, I could see that Pelican could support me in renegotiating suppliers’ prices, improving service levels with suppliers (to make sure our target delivery times are being adhered to), as well as support our drive to deliver a modern food service experience that is more akin to the high street.

Having talked to Pelican, the first step was to fully review our current purchasing processes, products and suppliers. With the level of spend, it became clear that in order to achieve best value we needed to carry out a professional tender exercise. It was a really interesting process to be a part of.  As well as putting in place new supplier service levels, I was also able to achieve financial savings even though we remained with the same key supplier, so this was a real bonus!

Now with Pi, I am better able to manage our purchasing. Using the systems has saved an astonishing amount of time; now invoicing is centralised and delivered via the portal.  It’s quick to review and sign-off, plus I have the comfort of knowing that the system has already automatically checked invoice prices against our agreed contractual costs, so I no longer have to manually check line by line, item by items, which creates a huge time saving.  

Another great benefit that the system offers is having immediate access to purchasing data and management reports. For example, if there had been a decrease in expenditure on one site, previously I would have to try and manually collate all the purchase data by site and trawl through lines and lines of data. Before, it would have taken at least three people to gather what was needed.  Now, I can go onto Pi, search by date, reference or site and there it is, all there.  The transparency and simplicity of accessing this level of data is fantastic!

This of course delivers wider benefits for the whole trust and not just me.  Our financial director can quickly access the management information required and in the right format. 

For example, if governors ask ‘how much are you spending per meal’, we now have the ability to provide this level of data, very quickly. Everything can be broken down.  All the information can be easily accessed, which is very reassuring. We are using public money at the end of the day, so we need to be transparent and show where money is being spent.”

How to manage logistics 

With seven schools in the VAT and 14 individual catering sites to manage, a big part of Sally’s role is making sure the right products are delivered, at the right time.  After all, when you’re providing meals to thousands of students at set times of the day, the kitchen staff need to be equipped with everything they need to make this happen.

Confirms Sally: “Previously, I found that logistics had started to take up a lot of my time. Even though our schools are located close together, they are in fairly rural locations.  Plus, being schools we need to be the first drop. We are also limited in the sense that we can’t hold a lot of stock so need regular deliveries. We’d started to face some issues with this. This is where Pelican really came into its own. They met with the suppliers and sorted it – a solution was found to make sure our deliveries were made when we needed them”.

How to deal with financial pressures 

When asked what the future holds, Sally adds: “There is continued financial pressure facing schools up and down the country, including changes to the way Government funding is handled. It is predicted that many schools will face tough times ahead as a result.

For us, as a trust, we are collectively working together to create efficiencies, cost savings and deliver innovations that streamline existing working practices.  Our adoption of the Pelican Pi system is just one example of this. By collaborating together and using the latest technologies to support our operations, we are able to benefit from economies of scale and be more efficient and agile, while making better procurement decisions and ultimately spending less time on back office processes. All this is giving us more time delivering the very best services to our students.”

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