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 2024
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School types: All · School phases: All
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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

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.

Follow the steps for your chosen route

Use a framework agreement

The framework agreements let you buy from DfE-approved suppliers with agreed terms and conditions and legal protections.

The framework agreement will say if you can select a preferred supplier yourself, or if you have to run a mini-competition. If you need to run a mini-competition, it will set out the rules you must follow for doing so.

The terms and conditions (or service order terms) are set as part of the framework agreement. You usually can't change them.

Follow the DfE's step-by-step guide to using a framework agreement.

Use catalogues to find low-value goods

You should set out in your procurement rules what low value means. The DfE generally suggests anything under £10,000 is low.

To buy in this way you should:

  • Compare similar products and prices
  • Choose the supplier that offers best value for money

The DfE-reviewed catalogues are:

  • CCS Purchasing Platform provides technology products including laptops, smartphones, accessories and software, and office machines that print, scan, or copy (multi-functional devices)
  • ESPO products catalogue provides a range of products, including stationery, art and crafts, classroom resources, furniture, office and presentation equipment, and curriculum resources
  • YPO procurement product catalogue provides a range of products from UK suppliers, including pens and paper, storage, computers, audio visual equipment, and furniture

You're also free to do your own research and choose other suppliers.

Follow the DfE's step-by-step guide to using catalogues.

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

 You should set out in your procurement rules what low and medium value means. The DfE generally suggests:

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

To buy in this way you should:

  • Decide how you will assess the bids
  • Get quotes from at least 3 suppliers
  • Assess all the quotes you get fairly
  • Choose the supplier that offers best value for money

Follow the DfE's step-by-step guide to getting quotes from suppliers.

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

The DfE recommends that you get legal advice before buying high-value things.

Your own procurement rules should set the high-value level. The DfE generally suggests anything over £40,000 is high value.

This route is only for buying things under the PCR procurement thresholds. If what you're buying is over, or near to, the threshold, you'll need to use the PCR compliant bidding process (see the following section).

If you can't get what you need through a DfE-approved framework or another framework agreement, you must:

  • Assess the market
  • Prepare your contract and tender documents
  • Advertise in the right places
  • Consider using an expression of interest to cut the number of bids you’ll need to assess later
  • Send an invitation to tender to people who reply to your advert
  • Assess all the bids you get fairly, using the same process
  • Choose the bid that offers best value for money
  • Award the contract to the highest scoring bidder

Follow the DfE's step-by-step guide to advertising a contract and running a buying process.

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

The DfE recommends seeking legal advice when buying anything over, or near to, the PCR procurement thresholds. From January 2024 the thresholds are:

  • Goods – £214,904
  • Works – £5,372,609
  • Most services – £214,904
  • Some services are covered by the 'light touch regime', which has a threshold of £663,540. You can see which services are covered by the light touch regime in the legislation

These thresholds operate as inclusive of VAT.

If what you're buying is over the PCR procurement threshold, you should:

  • Assess the market
  • See if you can get what you need using a DfE-approved framework or another framework agreement
  • Prepare your contract and invitation to tender
  • Consider whether to use the restricted procedure to reduce the number of bids you have to assess later, or the open procedure to let anyone bid

Then you must:

  • Advertise a contract notice using Find a Tender (FTS)
  • Make your invitation to tender and all other documents available electronically from the time that the contract notice is published
  • Assess all the bids you get fairly, using the same process
  • Choose the supplier that offers best value for money
  • Award the contract to the highest scoring bid supplier

Follow the DfE's step-by-step guide to running a buying process for purchases over the 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.

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