How to buy goods, works or services

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

Last reviewed on 4 February 2022
School types: All · School phases: All
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Contents
  1. Key points to remember
  2. The Find a Tender service has replaced the EU Tenders Electronic Daily (TED)
  3. Inform everyone who should be involved
  4. Write your draft specification and work out the cost of the contract
  5. Write a business case
  6. Decide which procurement process you need to use
  7. Appendix: How to run a mini-competition under a framework agreement
  8. Appendix: Get quotes for purchases less than £40k
  9. Appendix: Seek legal advice for purchases over £40k
  10. Appendix: Use a PCR-compliant bidding process for purchases over the PCR 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.

Key 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 than those here
  • Check with your LA, multi-academy trust (MAT) or diocese before you start, as it may be responsible for buying certain things

Procuring or re-procuring an MIS?

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

The Find a Tender service has replaced the EU Tenders Electronic Daily (TED)

You should now use the Find a Tender service in the UK public procurement process, following the end of the Brexit transition period.  

The only exception is if your procurement project started on the EU TED or in the Official Journal of the European Union (OJEU) before the end of the transition period - in this case, you must conclude it on OJEU/TED.

See guidance from the Cabinet Office on public-sector procurement and this procurement policy note.

Procurement threshold changes from 1 January 2022

Thresholds are now announced via procurement policy notes (PPN) from the Cabinet Office. They are set every 2 years in line with World Trade Organisation (WTO) obligations. The UK became a member of the WTO Government Procurement Agreement (GPA) on 1 January 2021, and any future changes will be determined at that level.

From 1 January 2022, contract value estimations – which you’ll use to work out whether regulations apply – are inclusive of VAT. This is a change from previous years and a result of the UK’s independent membership of the WTO's procurement agreement after leaving the EU.

Read more here.

Inform everyone who should be involved

Consider:

  • Who will be approving the decisions and when (e.g. governors, trustees, your school's responsible body) - you may have a competitive tendering policy that outlines 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 and 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 to declare their interests in writing
  • Asking different staff members to assess the bids

Write your draft specification and work out the cost of the contract

The specification is important; a version will feature in both the business case and - if you go down that route - the invitation to tender. 

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'll use whatever it is you're buying, to make sure it meets their needs
  • Talk to the people who'll approve the purchase. Doing this will help you understand what they want to see in the specification to approve this particular purchase
  • Talk to 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 – that comes 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 (for example, 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 purchasing

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

Estimate the whole-life cost of the contract, so you can decide which buying process you need to use

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

Write a business case

It should include:

  • Your draft specification 
  • Estimated whole-life cost for 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. Consult your own competitive tendering policy, which should specify which (if not all) types of purchase require a business case for sign-off. 

Decide which procurement process you need to use

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

Appendix: How to run a mini-competition under a framework agreement

Use this process if you're buying through a framework agreement and need to run a mini-competition.

Check the terms of the agreement to see exactly how to do it – some set out rules you have to follow.

1. Decide your award criteria

Work out how you'll assess each bid to decide which one best meets your specifications and also best combines price and quality.

Give each criterion:

  • A range of scores, e.g. 1 to 5, with 5 being the highest
  • A weighting, depending on how much of a priority that criterion is for you (a figure you multiply the score by)

Check the terms of the framework agreement to see if there are any rules on what questions you can ask and what weightings you can give.

2. Prepare an invitation to tender, or send an expression of interest (EOI) form

  • Send an invitation to tender to every supplier in the framework who can meet your needs
  • Or, find out how many suppliers are interested in bidding by sending an EOI form to them all. You then only need to send your invitation to tender to those who respond

Check the terms of the framework agreement, as not all of them allow EOIs. If it does, the DfE has a template EOI form you can download and use (notethe template is currently under review, with a revised version set to be uploaded in due course).

Invitations to tender should include:

  • A covering letter
  • A timetable for the purchase, including details of the timeframe during which suppliers can ask you questions, a deadline by which they must submit their bid, the 'standstill period' if you have one (see point 6), and when you want the contract to start
  • Information about how the supplier can ask you questions
  • Information about how the supplier can submit a bid
  • Your specification
  • Your award criteria 
  • The specific levels of service you want
  • Your terms of appointment

Use this example invitation to tender from the DfE (notethe template is currently under review, with a revised version set to be uploaded in due course).

3. Answer questions from suppliers

  1. Ask suppliers to email their questions
  2. Send the question – anonymised so nobody knows who asked it – and your answer to all the bidders (ask suppliers if they're happy for you to publish their question and your answer. If they say no, consider their request and give them the opportunity to withdraw the question if you don't agree)
  3. Keep a record of questions you receive and the answers you give

4. Decide on the winning bid

  1. Have at least 2 people assess the bids independently
  2. Score each bid against the criteria you identified, for example using 1 to 5, where 5 is the highest. Multiply this by the weighting you assigned to that criterion to get a total score 
  3. Compare scores, discuss any differences, and decide on an agreed score
  4. Keep a record of all scores, comments and decisions

The DfE has a scoring template you can use (the template is currently under review, with a revised version set to be uploaded in due course).

You must:

  • Not open any bids before the deadline
  • Treat all bids fairly and equally
  • Record how you made your decisions
  • Keep confidential, secure and auditable records about how you reached your decisions
  • Buy from the highest scoring bidder

5. Let suppliers know

Send a letter to all the bidders at the same time, including:

  • The name of the winning bidder
  • The award criteria you used
  • Scores for the winning bid
  • Advantages of the winning bid
  • The end of your 'standstill' or cooling-off period (see point 6), if you have one
  • Scores and feedback for their own bid (for unsuccessful bidders) – make sure you personalise this section to each bidder and don't share the details of anyone else's bid

You don't have to give more feedback than this to an unsuccessful bidder. If you do, make sure you don't give details of anyone else's bid, and try to give positive feedback.

6. Award the contract

The DfE recommends having a standstill period of at least 10 days, so that unsuccessful bidders can challenge your decision if they think it's unfair.

After the standstill period, tell the successful supplier that you're buying from them, and sign the contract. The terms and conditions will generally have been agreed as part of the framework agreement.

This appendix is based on the DfE’s guidance for running a mini-competition.

Appendix: Get quotes for purchases less than £40k

Use this process if you aren't buying through a framework agreement (see the appendix above for that).

Note – your school, trust or LA may have a different threshold for what it considers 'low or medium value'. 

1. Decide on your award criteria

Work out how you'll decide the best quote, using criteria such as:

  • Price
  • Quality
  • How far suppliers meet your specification
  • How quickly they can supply

Give each criteria a weighting, depending on how much of a priority it is for you.

2. Get quotes from at least 3 suppliers

Send suppliers the following information:

  • Your specification
  • The deadline for when you need the quote
  • When you'll decide
  • How they can ask questions about your process or your needs
  • A link to your terms and conditions

3. Decide on the winning quote and order

  1. Have at least 2 people assess the quotes independently
  2. Score each quote against the criteria you identified, for example using 1 to 5, where 5 is the highest. Multiply this by the weighting you assigned to that criteria to get a total score 
  3. Compare scores, discuss any differences, and decide on an agreed score
  4. Keep a record of all scores, comments and decisions
  5. Send a contract, such as a purchase order, to the supplier you've chosen

To avoid legal challenges:

  • Don't open quotes before the deadline
  • Don't open late quotes
  • Treat all quotes fairly and equally
  • Keep confidential, secure and auditable records about how you reached your decisions
  • Buy from the highest scoring supplier

This appendix is based on DfE guidance on buying low- to medium-cost things.

Appendix: Seek legal advice for purchases over £40k

Use this process if you aren't buying through a framework agreement (see the first appendix above for that).

Note – your school, trust or LA may have a different threshold for what it considers 'high value'. 

1. Seek legal advice

2. Research the market

  • Speak to potential suppliers (but make sure any information you give them at this stage is given to everyone else who bids later, and that your specification doesn't unnecessarily favour the ones you've spoken to)
  • Ask other schools what they've done

3. Decide on your award criteria

Work out how you'll assess each bid to decide which one best meets your specifications and also best combines price and quality. Give each criterion a weighting, depending on how much of a priority it is for you.

4. Advertise

Advertise in newspapers, education publications or websites, trade magazines, or on the government's Contract Finder service.

Explain clearly:

  • What you want
  • What information you need from the supplier
  • How they can get an invitation to tender
  • The timeline for the purchase
  • That you'll be using award criteria to give the contract to the ‘most economically advantageous tender’

5. Run an expression of interest (EOI) process if required

When you advertise, you could ask suppliers to submit an EOI if you:

  • Want to know how many bids you're likely to get, so you know how much work it'll take to assess them later
  • Are buying something unusual and want to know if companies can supply it

Think carefully about whether an EOI is necessary or if it'll save you time or money.

6. Send an invitation to tender to companies that reply to your advert

It should include:

  • A covering letter
  • The timeline for the purchase, including details of the timeframe during which suppliers can ask you questions, a deadline by which they must submit their bid, the 'standstill period' (see point 9), and when you want the contract to start
  • Information about how they can ask questions
  • Information about how they can submit a bid
  • Your specification
  • A list of things you want prices for
  • Your award criteria
  • Your contract terms, including the level of service you want and any contract management arrangements (such as regular meetings)
  • Any other mandatory requirements for the supplier, and an invitation for them to give you a demonstration (if required)

7. Answer questions from suppliers

You should have a 'clarification stage', during which suppliers can ask you questions.

  1. Ask suppliers to email their questions
  2. Send the question – anonymised so nobody knows who asked it – and your answer to all the bidders (ask suppliers if they're happy for you to publish their question and your answer. If they say no, consider their request and give them the opportunity to withdraw the question if you don't agree)
  3. Keep a record of questions you receive and the answers you give

8. Decide on the winning bid

  1. Have at least 2 people assess the bids independently
  2. Score each bid against the criteria you identified, for example using 1 to 5, where 5 is the highest. Multiply this by the weighting you assigned to that criterion to get a total score 
  3. Compare scores, discuss any differences, and decide on an agreed score
  4. Keep a record of all scores, comments and decisions

The DfE has a scoring template you can use (note: the template is currently under review, with a revised version set to be uploaded in due course).

You must:

  • Not open any bids before the deadline
  • Treat all bids fairly and equally
  • Record how you made your decisions
  • Keep confidential, secure and auditable records about how you reached your decisions
  • Buy from the highest scoring supplier

9. Let everyone know your decision

Write to the winning bidder, telling them:

  • The award criteria you used
  • Their scores
  • Why you think their bid gives you the best combination of price and quality
  • Any feedback

The letter is an invitation to finalise the contract. Make it clear that there are no commitments and no work should begin until you've both signed the contract.

Send a letter to all unsuccessful bidders at the same time, telling them:

  • The name of the winning bidder
  • The award criteria you used
  • Scores for the winning bid
  • Advantages of the winning bid
  • The end of your 'standstill' or cooling-off period (see below) if you have one
  • Their own scores and feedback (make sure you personalise this section to each bidder and don't share the details of anyone else's bid)

You don't have to give more feedback than this to an unsuccessful bidder. If you do, make sure you don't give details of anyone else's bid, and try to give positive feedback.

The DfE recommends having a standstill period of at least 10 days, so that unsuccessful bidders can challenge your decision if they think it's unfair.

If an unsuccessful bidder challenges your decision, explain that your assessment process was fair and that you've kept good records. If they make a formal challenge, don't formalise the contract until you've sought legal advice.

10. Award the contract

  • Make sure you're the last to sign
  • Check that the signed copy you receive is exactly the same as the copy you sent to them
  • If you placed an advert in Contracts Finder, place a notice of your contract award there too
  • Make sure nothing's changed from what was in the original invitation to tender
  • Meet with the supplier to finalise management and payment arrangements and agree how you'll work together

This appendix is based on DfE guidance on buying procedures and procurement law for schools.

Appendix: Use a PCR-compliant bidding process for purchases over the PCR thresholds

Seek legal advice when buying anything over, or near to, the Public Contracts Regulation (PCR) procurement thresholds. The thresholds, from January 2022, are:

  • Goods – £213,477
  • Works – £5,366,937
  • Most services – £213,477
  • Some services are covered by the 'light touch regime', which has a threshold of £663,540

From 2022, these thresholds will operate as inclusive of VAT. They were previously exclusive of VAT.

Read more about buying procedures and procurement law for schools.

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