How to buy goods, works or services

As a maintained school or academy, you have a duty to get the best value for money from contracts you enter into. Follow our step-by-step procurement guide and use our downloadable flowchart to make sure you're buying in the right way.

Last reviewed on 18 January 2024See updates
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Contents
  1. Points to remember
  2. Write your draft specification
  3. Estimate the whole-life cost of the contract
  4. Write a business case
  5. Inform everyone who should be involved
  6. Use 1 of the 5 routes to buy
  7. Follow the steps for your chosen route
Please note: the process for buying goods and services over the PCR threshold (see route 5 below) will change when the Procurement Act comes into force on 28 October 2024. We'll update this article when the DfE releases more guidance on how this will affect schools – select 'save for later' to receive a notification when this happens.

In the meantime, see our Procurement Act summary.

Points to remember

  • Always follow any procurement rules set by your school, trust or local authority (LA), which may set out different processes or thresholds to those listed here 
  • Check with your LA, multi-academy trust (MAT) or diocese before you start, as it may be responsible for buying certain things

Don't have a competitive tendering policy?

You can use our model policy template to help you create one.

Procuring or re-procuring an MIS?

Here's what to look for in a management information system (MIS).

Write your draft specification

You should always write a specification. It will help you make decisions and tells the supplier exactly what you need.

The first version of your specification only needs to be a draft. You can refine it later if you need to, based on any feedback at the approval stage for your business case, before you send it to prospective suppliers. 

Before you write your specification: 

  • Talk to:
    • The people who will use whatever it is you're buying, to make sure it meets their needs
    • The people who will approve the purchase. Doing this will help you understand what they want to see in the specification to approve this particular purchase
    • Suppliers, so you can get a sense of prices and what's available. This isn't the same as the invitation to tender/selection of supplier/request for quotes though – these come later
  • Think about what's essential, what's nice to have, and what you may need in a few years' time
  • Consider whether you need external support. You may need it from a relevant expert, e.g. a procurement consultant with experience of this type of purchasing, or an advisory service such as Acas (for HR services). The DfE also has some advice on buying for schools.

Your specification should include:

  • A precise description of what you need
  • How it should meet the school's needs
  • The quantity and quality required
  • When you need it

This is explained in the DfE's guidance on writing a specification.

Estimate the whole-life cost of the contract

Include:

  • The initial cost of the goods, works or services
  • VAT
  • Delivery charges
  • Ongoing maintenance or support costs
  • Running costs
  • The cost of removing or disposing of an item or service when you no longer need it

The cost will affect which buying process you use (see more on this below). Check your own procurement rules to see what they define as low, medium and high value. The DfE generally considers:

  • Low is under £10,000
  • Medium is £10,000 to £40,000
  • High is over £40,000

Write a business case

It should include:

  • Your draft specification 
  • The estimated whole-life cost of the contract
  • Any opportunities to work with other schools, such as borrowing equipment, buying together to get a better deal, or comparing prices and experiences from previous purchases

The DfE recommends writing a business case as part of the procurement process, to:

  • Set out what you need, why you need it, and by when
  • Ask for approval to make the purchase
  • Record your decision-making process

You might decide it's not necessary for low-value tenders. Check your own competitive tendering policy, which should specify which (if not all) types of purchase require a business case for sign-off.  

Inform everyone who should be involved

Consider:

  • Who will be approving the decisions and when (e.g. governors, trustees, your school's responsible body) – your competitive tendering policy may outline your approval procedures 
  • Whether you need external support if the buying involves any technical expertise (e.g. a project manager for construction projects, legal experts or suppliers)

Identify and remove any potential conflicts of interest before you start

If this isn't possible, think about:

  • Withholding the names of the companies while their bids are assessed
  • Asking everyone involved to declare their interests in writing
  • Asking different staff members to assess the bids

Use 1 of the 5 routes to buy

The DfE guidance on buying for schools identifies 5 routes to buy. The route you choose will depend on the amount you're spending:

  • Route 1: use a framework agreement (for purchases of all values)
  • Route 2: use catalogues to find low value goods
  • Route 3: get at least 3 quotes from suppliers (or low or medium value purchases)
  • Route 4: advertise a contract and run a buying process (for high value purchases under the public contract regulations (PCR) threshold)
  • Route 5: run a buying process for high value purchases over the PCR threshold

Use this flowchart to help you decide. Detailed guidance for each route is in the following sections.

KeyDoc: procurement process – flowchart PDF, 207.8 KB

Follow the steps for your chosen route

Use a framework agreement

Use catalogues to find low-value goods

Get at least 3 quotes from suppliers (for low or medium-value purchases)

Advertise a contract and run a buying process (for high-value purchases under the PCR threshold)

Run a buying process for high-value purchases over the PCR threshold

Article Updates

18 January 2024

We've updated this article to more closely reflect the DfE's guidance on buying for schools, including adding new routes to buy and changes to procurement thresholds.

4 February 2022

We've updated this article to include the new procurement thresholds. We've also removed wording about 'EU-compliant' bidding processes that no longer apply.

14 January 2022

We've updated this article to include more detail to help you plan your purchases.

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