ESPO: We are essential to those selling to schools

We chat to Claire Watkins about ESPO’s catalogue, frameworks and bespoke procurement
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ESPO’s communications manager, Claire Watkin, talks about supplying to schools for over 30 years and what the classroom of the future may look like.

Could you give a brief overview of what ESPO does?
We are effectively the bridge between suppliers and the end public sector customers we deal with – it might be a smaller organisation, such as a local village primary school, or it could be a big council or unitary authority, or equally a police or fire authority. We really do cover the whole range of the public sector.

We generally serve public sector customers, though a massive chunk of our customers are individual schools. If you look at our catalogue, for example, 80 per cent of the customers are schools.

There are essentially three different routes people can use to supply to the public sector through us. One is through our catalogue, which is quite a commonly seen thing around schools and other public sector organisations – it's a big doorstep of a catalogue. That has 27,000 products in and there’s an IT section in there, covering hardware, some software and a lot of consumable items. That turns over about £65 million a year in sales. Some of it is distributed from our centre and some of it comes directly from suppliers' different warehouses.

We also do bespoke procurement on behalf of individual clients – that is where somebody has quite a unique take on things, or they want something particularly bespoke. For example, at the moment on our website there's a tender opportunity out to supply the Royal Opera House with IT hardware and software. We're doing all of their procurement for IT hardware and software. We do quite a lot of bespoke procurement – there's a couple of hundred a year that go on for different customers across our different categories, so it's a big piece of work for us.

The other element that we're known for is public sector frameworks. Frameworks are a way of linking private sector suppliers with the public sector. It sets up a method in which a school or an authority can deal directly with a supplier – they don't have to come through us for every single purchase.

Can schools opt to purchase different products from different suppliers using the framework?
It depends on the actual framework they’re using, but if they bought the goods and services off a framework, if you looked at photocopiers, for example, a school might use the photocopier framework, pick from one of four suppliers and find the best supplier for them. After they've done that, they can then sign up to a contract with that particular supplier. It's a method of whittling down the whole supply base to the best one that meets your needs. We taken some of the legwork out of that for them, because we've already matched them against the minimum criteria that all of the suppliers meet.

Which regions of the UK do you serve?
We're based in Leicester, and traditionally the ESPO heartland has been the eastern shires, which is where we were founded and where the original users of our products and services originated. Since then we've fanned out, and we now operate on a much more national basis than ever before. We supply the whole of the UK, for both our catalogues and our frameworks, and they can be used UK-wide.

How does the Pro5 collaboration work?
Pro5 is a collection of professional buying organisations, including ourselves. It's a group of us that get together and collaborate on work, aggregating the demand of customers, sharing our expertise and knowledge to produce better frameworks.

Do you know of other ways that teachers purchase tech? They obviously tend to buy from catalogues like yours...
Yeah, that's right. Our catalogue is favoured among a lot of schools – we supply over 9,000 individual schools across the country, so it's a huge number that buy from it. One of the reasons it's essential for schools is because it has pretty much everything in it, from curriculum resources to memory sticks. It really is a complete resource for them, and we're a trusted supplier – we've been supplying to schools for 30-odd years – so it's synonymous with education.

How can resellers sell better to schools?
If they were doing it through ESPO, then they wouldn't have to worry about compliance at all.

Schools are also becoming increasingly savvy when it comes to procurement, particularly academies. They're hunting around for the best deal, but they have that compliance in the back of their mind.

In the days of old when schools might've been tempted by a cheaper deal, there have been many stories about schools being stung by suppliers – by going through ESPO they know they’re not going to get that. But equally for suppliers who are on our frameworks or supplying our catalogue, they become a trusted supplier of schools and schools get to know their name – and by knowing that they're associated with us, they know they're not going to get ripped off.

In such a fast-moving market, do schools run the risk of using out-dated tech?
You’re right. Technology is moving at a blistering pace – there are many schools keeping pace with that. You see schools that do have a policy of one computer per child or have iPads in every school.

I think schools have to decide what’s best for the students and what will enhance their learning – not necessarily would keeping up with technology mean that. Obviously they need to be in the mix, but it’s not the be all and end all to be out-dated. I do think that teachers take quite a sensible approach to what meets the needs of the children best.

What do you think the classroom of the future will look like?
I wouldn’t be surprised if the idea of a blackboard in a conventional sense is phased out and children were sat looking at a screen that the teacher was controlling, with each kid having a controllable device in front of them. I wouldn’t be surprised at all if in ten years time, that was the case.

But also, the beauty of technology is that it allows parents to track and to monitor the progress of their children, and you might see increasing pressure on teachers because they've got pushy parents in the background saying 'why didn't my child score this or that' or 'why haven't they been moved onto the next level'. So the tracking of learning and the technology involved in that and connectivity with the internet will come to the fore in education.

The curriculum is changing this year with a focus on technology including the use of 3D printers and coding. In light of this, what new opportunities are there for IT resellers?

There are a lot of changes coming in in September. In terms of doing business through ESPO, it doesn’t pose a particular opportunity, because the procurement for the new curriculum is our current catalogue, so although the new curriculum doesn't come in until September, all of our buying to supply to schools has already taken place.

But as things move forward, it might be that when we’re putting out tenders in the future, we’re changing the structure to include coding, for example, which I don't think was included in the last one, and which is coming in the new curriculum. In the future there will be opportunities, but I wouldn't put a September deadline on it.

When’s the best time for schools to buy?
It depends on the type of school – we see a big hump in the lead-up to the school holidays, with teachers putting in big orders for September time and the start of the new school year. They’re buying all of their books, everything – one per child.

How should firms be mindful of tighter school budgets than in the past?
Pricing is a huge issue now – it’s value for money now, rather than cheapness, so they need to be able to demonstrate that they’re getting value for money out of it, and sometimes that means not always taking the cheapest product that comes along, but instead one that has slightly better features or guarantees or added extras.

When we’re putting our tenders and procurement activities together, it’s value for money that we look at, not price. This means that you might be offering a range of things – if you took a printer for example, we might be looking for a certain threshold of value for money, but we might offer 10 different types of printer because lots of schools have lots of different requirements.

Who are some of the suppliers you work with?
Supplies Team, Computacenta, Ergo Computing, Insight Direct, Misco, Stone Computers, Office Depot, UK Laser Supplies... That's just a few from a few different frameworks – we work with about 2,000 suppliers.

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