Collaborative contracting – a new approach for Independent schools?

When outsourcing catering, schools often adopt a conventional approach: invite contractors to visit, submit a tender response and present their proposal.  Whilst efficient, the process seldom affords bidders enough time to really understand the school’s character, or to tailor their solution to its unique requirements.  Likewise, the selection panel has limited opportunity to engage with each contractor’s team and decide whether they’re a good fit for the school.

Across the industry, we are seeing a move away from this “transactional” approach, towards more collaborative contractor engagement to deliver successful, long-term partnerships.  The “Vested” model, developed over two decades at the University of Tennessee, has many of the features that define the collaborative approach: a focus on achieving outcomes for clearly defined and shared objectives; transparency and trust; and incentivising success.

A McKinsey study¹ has also illustrated how organisations that collaborate with their suppliers achieve better outcomes than those that don’t.

So how can a collaborative approach work in your school?

Firstly, decide your objectives for the contract.  Does the catering team need development, do you need investment, are you growing your commercial activities?  Being frank about your requirements will help you shortlist only those that have the appetite and track record to deliver your goals.

Next, narrow the field.  Inviting all potential bidders to participate in the tender wastes your time and theirs.  Shortlisting can be done informally by speaking with colleagues at other schools, inviting companies into view and discuss your requirements, or through a more structured pre-qualification response.  Three contractors will provide sufficient competition and time for each to develop a compelling offer.

You’re then ready to engage with each bidder.  Allow each company time at your school, on separate days, to understand better the character of the school and to meet with key stakeholders who will influence the decision.  Selection should be continuous and dynamic, not a one-way process based on a glossy document or slick food presentation.  Contractors also choose clients and you’ll get the best outcome when you invest in their success too.

Invite detailed proposals from each bidder and then discuss the merits of each with their bid teams during a feedback session.  This engagement, or competitive dialogue, allows them to correct misunderstandings and refine their solutions so that their final tender is appropriate for the school.  Visiting a comparable client reference school is also recommended, and preferable to food presentations, which focus on just one aspect of the offer.

Finally, to negotiate the contract, focus on defining, measuring and rewarding the achievement of joint objectives, not penalising failure.            

So, next time you embark on tendering or renegotiating your catering contract, it’s worth considering whether a more collaborative approach might be a better way to go.


By Joe Parfitt, Partner

More information on services for independent schools


¹ “Taking supplier collaboration to the next level”, McKinsey, 7th July 2020.

The Litmus Partnership is an official licensed partner for Vested.