Planning for the other side of the looking glass

Like Alice in Wonderland, we seem to have clambered through the looking glass into a strange, fantastical world where logic has been inverted.

The normal rhythms of our lives have been cast to the wind for the foreseeable future by the Covid-19 health emergency, and we are in a strange world which is, at least for the moment, difficult to comprehend.

For school business professionals this upheaval will, eventually, become the new normal and there will be an opportunity for you to plan for better times.

And one area I’d urge school business professionals to include in that planning time is contract monitoring.

When you finally put a firm line through that catering or cleaning contract renewal on your to-do lists you might allow yourself a slight frisson of achievement before ploughing onto the next task.

But sometimes SBMs don’t keep as close an eye on the performance of the new contractors once the paperwork is signed and filed.

In fact, non-compliant procurement practices and weak internal control arrangements are a major source of regularity and compliance issues in the auditing of school accounts, according to ESFA.

If SBMs monitor contracts as they move along, they could save their schools a lot of money at a time when budget discipline is, as always, an absolute must.

Yes, it’s easy for school business managers to take their eyes off the ball after contract signing. You are swamped with work.

One of the first contract monitoring jobs we took on perfectly illustrates the contract challenges schools face.

The business manager of the large secondary school didn’t feel that things were quite right with the cleaning contract, but he didn’t have the time to do a forensic examination of it to prove if his hunch was right.

We took a close look at the contract and while this revealed details that put the contractor in a good light – for example they had done a 95 hour deep clean of the premises at the start of the contract and didn’t charge for it – it did uncover savings of £15,000 a year could be made by changing the supplier and dispensers for paper towels and soap. That’s a significant amount which could instead be ploughed into teaching and learning or SEN provision.

Very often we get schools complaining to us that although the contract started strongly problems began to creep in after a six-month honeymoon period.

One complaint we heard was that some cleaners were consistently arriving late for their shifts and were putting false entries on their timesheets in an attempt to cover their lateness.  Not only did this mean the school was losing hours but it was also causing unrest with the rest of the cleaning team who were arriving and leaving on time.

The issue could have been avoided if the contractor had been held to their word; we discovered a commitment in the tender that cleaning staff would use a biometric system to clock in and out of their shifts. A simple interrogation of the original bid revealed a clear commitment that they could be held to – and they were.

If for some reason the contractor fails to deliver the service they promised you need to be able to evidence that they are not doing what they said they would do.

Carrying out a monthly walk round is one approach. In most contracts you should clearly state that once a month you will monitor certain areas and score it so that it can be measured against a set of KPIs. It’s a good way of making sure that if you have any objections you have the evidence to back them up.

The contract also needs to set out exactly what constitutes a material breach so that you have a way of exiting the contract if necessary. Our contracts, for example, state that if a contractor fails to meet agreed KPIs three months on the trot then that will constitute a material breach.

Keeping a tight rein on contracts is crucial because it will help schools take greater control and make the most of your limited budgets.

And when we’re through the looking glass, anything that brings back some control and predictability must surely be welcome.

If you’d like some more detailed guidance on contract monitoring, why not have a watch of our recent webinar “Why am I not receiving what was promised?  Contract monitoring, a guide to getting the best from your outsourced services.”

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