The Report: What is the CCS edtech procurement framework?

The Crown Commercial Service (CCS) released its first edtech procurement framework in June, but what is it and how does it work? James Higgins reports…

What is the Crown Commercial Service?

It might not be a household name, but this arm’s-length government body – technically referred to as an executive agency – sits within the treasury and impacts the work of around 17,000 people in the country. The Crown Commercial Service (CCS) is the procurement body for the public service and, although many people have never heard of it, the agency steers an estimated £12bn in taxpayer spending every year.

According to the Office for Budget Responsibility (OBR), the government spent more than £800bn last year, so the figure given by the CCS is comparatively small. Much of this spending, however, goes on wages, pensions, big public sector schemes and existing contracts.

The CCS currently operates more than 100 frameworks and is the largest single procurer in the country. From the police to the NHS, CCS helps source temporary staff, marketing campaigns, utilities, fleets of vehicles, accredited legal advice and much more.

CCS in 30 seconds

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What is the RM6103 framework?

One of the agency’s latest frameworks was released in June 2019 and covers schools’ spending on technology. The new framework replaces ICT Services for Education (RM1050) and Network Services (RM1045) and, in a reflection of the Department for Education’s (DfE) shift in tone, is now called Education Technology. The framework lays the groundwork for schools, colleges, universities, local authorities (and even the police, NHS and fire and rescue service) to quickly and securely procure hardware, software, services and infrastructure to support education.

The framework offers vetted suppliers, standardised contracts and prior agreements to simplify the process for schools. The agreements will last until 2022 with a possible year’s extension after that.

The Breakdown

● In June 2019, the Crown Commercial Service released a new framework covering the procurement and provision of technology in schools replacing two older frameworks. The new framework more clearly reflects the Department for Education’s desire to see uptake of services and software in schools.

● British Educational Suppliers Association’s (BESA) 2015 Tablets and Connectivity survey found that the most significant barrier to schools in their uptake of new technology were fears around training and support, security and funding.

● Just 44 suppliers passed the agency’s strict criteria
to qualify to join the framework and bid for tender from schools across England and Wales.

● The government aims for a third of public spending to directed to SMEs by 2022 and CCS has ensured a majority of the suppliers on the list contribute towards this requirement. While direct and indirect spend to SMEs has dropped, education is one of the best areas for spending on SMEs. Nearly a half of the £44m spent on IT by schools under the old framework was with these businesses.

● Niall Quinn, technology director at CSS, is trying to simplify the frameworks and bring more SMEs on board.

● “In the current financial climate, educational institutes are not always better off in real terms.” – David Tindall, Schools Broadband.

What are the lots?

Lot 1
● The successor to the ICT Services for Education framework. This offers guidance and suppliers for those procuring partially or fully managed IT services, support and maintenance, and fitting and integration for new facilities or adding new capability to existing IT infrastructure.

Lot 2
● For those needing new broadband fibre infrastructure. In the government’s own strategy – Realising the Potential of Technology in Education – addressing poor internet connectivity is a key priority. Data from Ofcom suggests at least 500 schools in England are struggling with slow connections.
In a fifth of cases, this slow connectivity could prohibit teachers from streaming video content or moving storage to the cloud. Suppliers in this lot are capable of designing, providing and testing new broadband infrastructure.

Lot 3
● Once a school has had its infrastructure installed, school leaders must choose suppliers who can offer broadband services, support, filtering, firewalls, e-safety and IP connectivity.

Lot 4
● This lot covers the bulk of hardware – from 3D printers to laptops and cables.
● Tablets are an increasingly popular hardware for schools and BESA’s 2015 Tablets and Connectivity survey found that 71% of primary and 76% of secondary schools are making use of them. Based on historic figures, BESA predicts that the 44% of schools have one tablet per child by 2020.

Lot 5
● This lot covers audio and visual technology, as well as its installation. If schools increasingly utilise digital resources in the classroom, ensuring pupils can see and hear them from the back of the room is a crucial consideration.
In total, the framework features 44 suppliers who cover some, or all, of the lots.

This framework provides education institutions the peace of mind that a provider has passed through an incredibly stringent and thorough vetting process.
– David Tindall, Schools Broadband

The framework is designed for schools to purchase through a number of different ways

How do educators use the CCS framework?

The framework is designed for schools to purchase through a number of different ways. The simplest is the direct award. Not only is this the simplest and requires very little administration, it is also good for schools who require products at short notice. This option can only be used by schools seeking an ‘off-the-shelf’ product and therefore is only really appropriate for a limited number of products.

In the case when schools wish to purchase something more bespoke, complex or high-value, CCS advises further competitions. Schools must invite all potential suppliers within a lot to bid for tender after sending out an expression of interest (EOI). The next stage is the more formal invitation to tender (ITT) stage which should include all relevant schedules, expectations, requirements and specifications. It is at this point schools must explain how they will mark the bids against an 11-point checklist on which to ascribe weightings. CCS advises using its e-sourcing tool to monitor communications with the suppliers in the run up to the deadline. After carefully evaluating the bids (and keeping clear documentation for auditing purposes), schools can award a successful competitor with an order.

With all the hype about cloud technology, schools need to think hard about if, when and how they should be using it.
– Michael Oakley, RM Education

Schools can also choose to join CCS’s aggregated competitions, which include eAuctions. This is an opportunity for schools with overlapping needs (and standardised specifications) to join the regular competitions overseen by the CCS. The collected purchasing power of these competitions delivers economies of scale for all. Previously, if a school could not find what it needed via the CCS framework, it could go through European Union channels and open a procurement competition among suppliers throughout the 27 member nations. The future of this route is uncertain.

David Tindall, chief executive of Schools Broadband, says companies like his are keenly aware of delivering value for money when “in the current financial climate, educational institutes are not always better off in real terms”.
Tindall told ET: “Our experience to date is that the vast majority of establishments looking for significant investment in ICT have an ongoing financial commitment identified in their budgets, though the vast majority of schools no longer have dedicated ICT grants to provide for this.

“Where establishments have such capital funding then they are encouraged to utilise competitive frameworks as provided by Crown Commercial Services.”

But despite the competition element of the framework, Tindall says most schools prefer to use larger one-off procurements or aggregated purchases over a period of time. “This route provides educational institutes the peace of mind that a provider is immediately available and has passed through an incredibly stringent and thorough vetting process; financially, technically and contractually,” he says.

Related stats

£12bn: The amount of public spending  CCS influences

17,000: The number of people who purchase through a CCS framework

£16m: The amount edtech spending is expected to grow from primary and secondary schools this year, according to BESA

66%: The share of secondary schools that think they are ill-equipped with ICT infrastructure and devices

£900m: The predicted average annual UK spend on edtech

78%: The share of small and medium -sized enterprises (SMEs) on the CCS’s new Education Technology framework

How could a school benefit from the guidance of edtech experts?

Michael Oakley, RM Education product manager, says many schools are aware of the need to utilise new capabilities, like cloud technology, but they must be clear what to use it for if buying an ‘off-the-shelf’ product.

“For any school considering a technology investment it’s important to start at the end. And by that we mean that you have to be really clear what you are trying to achieve in terms of an educational outcome. You have to know what endpoint you are trying to reach in order to decide what technology is actually going to get you there,” Oakley says.

“With all the hype about cloud technology, schools need to think hard about if, when and how they should be using it. Yes, cloud technology delivers benefits, but how does a school work out which benefits they can and should pursue?”

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How is it different to the previous framework?

Unlike the previous framework, RM6103 covers broadband, hardware and audio-visual requirements – lots 2 to 5 are completely new to the CCS and because of that, the vast majority of successful suppliers are new to CSS and the framework. The other notable change that distinguishes this framework from its predecessor is the inclusion of SMEs.

A spokesperson for CCS said: “Seventy-eight per cent of suppliers on the agreement are small and medium-sized enterprises. SMEs are the backbone of the UK economy and government are strongly committed to working with SMEs to ensure 33% of spend is with SMEs by 2022. This is a challenging target, but it is the right aspiration and we are doing more than ever to encourage SMEs to become government suppliers.”