Effective commissioning in schools

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How can we commission services better in our school? This article explains the commissioning cycle, passes on tips on effective commissioning, and links to the Commissioning Support Programme and DfE guidance.

What is commissioning?

The Commissioning Support Programme (CSP) defines strategic commissioning as follows:

Commissioning is the process for deciding how to use the total resource available for children, young people, parents and carers in order to improve outcomes in the most efficient, effective, equitable and sustainable way.

This is a definition used for Children’s Trusts partners, but it also applies to the commissioning of services by schools.

The CSP and schools

The CSP ran between 2008 and 2011. It was aimed at supporting local authorities to commission services more effectively, efficiently, sustainably and equitably.

While it was running, the CSP worked to develop its web-based materials. These are now freely available online. A section of the website is devoted to schools. A distinction is made between commissioning by schools and the commissioning of schools.

Commissioning by schools

This refers to planning for, setting up, and monitoring services that address the needs of a community, and produce long-term benefits and efficiencies. You will find information and case studies on:

  • Coalitions, collaborations and co-locations between schools and services
  • Early intervention
  • Schools as effective Children’s Trust partners
  • Policy and legislation
  • Toolkits and good practice

Commissioning of schools

This means how schools are set up, perhaps federated, and managed by different groups, such as sponsors, parents or the government. You will find information on:

  • Strategic approaches to creating 21st century schools
  • School competitions
  • National challenge trusts

The commissioning cycle

Good Commissioning: Principles and Practice explains that commissioning is a cyclical process. There are several descriptions of the cycle. It can be simplified, however, to a four-step process:

  1. Understand
  2. Plan
  3. Do
  4. Review

The characteristics of effective commissioning

The guidance suggests that good commissioning activity relies on three characteristics:

  • Strong governance and clear frameworks
  • The commissioned activity itself
  • Having the capacity and the competencies both to run but also monitor and evaluate services

DfE guidance and the nine-step cycle

The Department for Education (DfE) brings together a range of articles to support commissioning and procurement skills in schools.

Many Children’s Trusts refer to a nine-step cycle developed by the government in 2005. This cycle is also useful for schools to refer to. The steps of the cycle are:

  1. Look at outcomes for children and young people
  2. Look at particular groups of children and young people
  3. Develop needs assessment with user and staff views
  4. Identify resources and set priorities
  5. Plan pattern of services and focus on prevention
  6. Decide how to commission services efficiently
  7. Commission – including use of pooled resources
  8. Plan for workforce and market development
  9. Monitor and review series and process

The steps are separate, but they will often be running concurrently.

Commissioning services that are built around the needs of users, specifically children and young people necessitates building new partnerships, and often entails joint working.

The ultimate aim is to empower the end users of services, giving them more choice and enabling greater self-determination, while running services efficiently and cost-effectively.

At the same time this activity builds a strategic understanding of how needs are met in the local community. It entails a more commercially-minded approach to procurement, which is part of the commissioning cycle. Commissioning, however, should not be seen as equivalent to procurement: commissioning is a strategic activity linked to a vision.

Practical tips for good commissioning

We spoke to Lorraine O’Reilly, former programme director of the Commissioning Support Programme, to ask for practical advice on good commissioning.

She told us:

Think different! Challenge the way things are done. Turn everything on its head and ask ‘Why?’ Look at the bigger picture to work out who your stakeholders are and how they can help you. Look at what resources you already have and work out how you can make best use of them. Remember that challenges are opportunities. Use defined outcomes instead of outputs to hold suppliers to account. Periods of reflection create value – take time to think about what you’re trying to achieve and why.

We also spoke to a number of headteachers who are already engaged in commissioning services for their schools, often working collaboratively with other schools. Their tips were as follows:

  • Build a strong vision – take time to do this
  • Listen to the people you want to help
  • Make champions out of naysayers to convert resistance to enthusiasm
  • Build your key contacts: know their perspective and motivation
  • Remember that ‘blockers’ may become ‘enablers’ at another point in the cycle
  • Become a commissioning champion yourself: teach colleagues the commissioning cycle
  • Map your context
  • Build working groups around themes to free them from institutional allegiances
  • Ask ‘why?’
  • Define outcomes not outputs
  • Identify skills gaps – actively seek expertise
  • Translate your proposals into the language your target audience uses

When asked what they thought was key to the purpose of commissioning, they made the following suggestions. Commissioning means:

  • First and foremost working with people
  • Building relationships
  • Freedom but also responsibility
  • A simple process to support complex planning
  • Becoming a decision-maker
  • Accountability
  • Risk
  • Good governance: representation and expertise

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