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The focus in modern schools on offering the best learning opportunities for children and young people means that change is afoot. As someone involved in school marketing and governorship, I am aware of the challenges and changes facing school leaders as they strive to focus on their core business and support services. That support now includes the outsourcing of specialist services. As cost pressures and competition increases in the United Arab Emirates and beyond, school leaders are turning to outsourcing some services in order to focus on their core purpose without overstretching budgets.

What is Outsourcing?

“Outsourcing’, ‘contracting out’, ‘remote workers’ and ‘off-shoring’ are terms that describe a cost-reducing or efficiency-driving practice used by organisations. Such practices are far from new but are being adopted by schools wanting specialist services that are part-time, seasonal or irregular in requirement on a permanent or fixed term basis. Activities can either be carried out on or off site and relate to specific tasks, jobs or entire operations.

British State schools now actively look at outsourcing to replace some of the services that were available to them from Local Authorities.  These are not always affordable in-house and may require specific technical knowhow or valuable experience. From a cost point of view, they help to reduce potential over-manning of the core business. One UAE school leader told me that their core in-house positions (after teaching) include finance, maintenance and landscaping, procurement, accommodation, government relations officer (GRO), PR, marketing, HR and front line administration staff to deal with parents and visitors.  They added that, “as long as it is efficient and cost-productive”, these jobs would continue to be undertaken by salaried staff. Is this a rational strategy?

With school leaders focusing on the strategic direction of teaching and learning, some of the skills they lent to decision-making in support functions is inevitably lost. Administrative staff may, therefore, be mis-informed about what’s expected of them, lack the experience or skills required or can be expected to carry out additional tasks not expected of their role. Outcomes may be less than optimal.

Schools as Outsourcers

Traditionally, schools have outsourced legal services, transport, uniform supplies and catering, in view of the expertise needed. In addition, we can see that peripatetic staff are used for specialist music lessons. Why shouldn’t other administration tasks, often subject to peaks and troughs, also be outsourced?

Here are some areas for consideration: –

  • Information Technology; offers latest technologies and economies of scale to access state of the art systems which have been tested and often designed specifically for schools, e.g. school management information systems
  • Marketing and Public Relations; solutions for latest trends in digital communications (e.g. website design). Marketing is more than creative activity. It requires analysis of marketing activities and undertaking market research (“left-brain marketing”) to pinpoint effective targeting and use of budgets; a top quality website is essential for the global reach of an international school because prospective overseas parents may not see local adverts or editorial about the school
  • Finance; payroll systems, auditing and stock control
  • Enrichment/Extracurricular; to improve the range of academic and non-academic opportunities on offer

This list is by no means exhaustive and is dependent of the needs of the school. Outsourcing can bring a wider breadth of skills to a modern school at a fraction of the fulltime or employed cost and, moreover, they add value to the school’s core offering by allowing teachers and leaders to focus on teaching and learning.

However, many remain uneasy about outsourcing for a number of reasons and are reluctant to cede tasks. This reluctance stems from perceptions of: –

  • Costly hourly fees
  • Loss of control
  • Performance Measurement

Such concerns can be addressed by assigning specific leaders or managers to the role of overseeing outsourcing. Careful selection of the right partner then reduces costs associated with employment, eliminates “empire building” – where long-term salaried staff outcomes are linked to the size and complexity of bureaucracy and not the goals of the institute and includes a well considered Service Level Agreement so that goals are understood.

Effective outsourcing examples I found include:-

  • A UK-based Academy with outsourced legal advice services that guarantee 24hr response with the most up to date advice
  • A UAE-based school outsources management of alumni data
  • The supply and sales of school uniform, transport and school catering onsite
  • Use of cutting edge digital technologies – management information and strategic communication systems that allow a variety of users to contribute safely
  • Strategic school marketing and PR
  • Use of third party software to manage data for rewarding and incentivising students or staff

The obvious barrier to outsourcing is the perceived loss of control. However, the right partnerships seek to ensure that the Service Level Agreement is achieved.

Outsourcing is not for everyone but if you are contemplating it, here are my

Top 10 Tips

  1. Undertake a Skills Audit of your own staff and foreseeable plans and a cost benefit analysis including possible training costs to upskill versus outsourcing.
  2. Plan and communicate carefully with potential outsourcers to ensure your Brief is clear and is understood. Remember you are in control.
  3. You never have to worry about recruiting too many or too few employees when you outsource; you can adjust the levels as the job progresses, meaning you have greater control over costs.
  4. Compare the cost of purchasing or hiring your own equipment and necessary storage, insurance and maintenance budget with outsourcing equivalents.
  5. Conduct regular meetings or communication with your remote worker(s). Give your senior leaders responsibility for maintaining regular communication.
  6. You don’t have to worry about funding for the latest market research, techniques or technologies as it will be the responsibility of your outsourced service. Ask them what’s new.
  7. Consider the cost of direct advertising versus a considered PR programme.  Social media campaigns and editorial opportunities are low-cost and highly effective means to communicate. Advertising can follow after analysis.
  8. Potential shortages of skilled teaching staff means that leaders have to put resources in to more Quality Assurance (QA). Outsourcing frees managers’ time for QA.
  9. It is sometimes appears difficult to evaluate third-party success. But outsourced services can provide you with tools to analyse the effectiveness of results against goals. One such tool in marketing, for example, is Google Analytics. This helps to gauge the effectiveness of your online presence and presented as a basic or in-depth report.
  10. Your Service Level Agreement is central to good outcomes. Train your senior leaders to manage the process.

With proper planning, clearly defined goals and having the confidence to delegate responsibility, outsourcing can be a less expensive solution. It allows managers of teaching and learning to focus on their key specialist areas. That is not to say, school leaders are not capable of managing finance, marketing or IT but the complexity of demands on today’s Headteachers are such that alternative solutions are necessary.Outsourcing is not about losing control, it’s about controlling outcomes differently.

By: Carmella Hunt