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School catering in-house or out-of-house: an independent perspective.

08 October 2018

It’s complicated and sometimes contentious. Should an independent school invest in its own catering team or simply outsource the function to a catering contractor? Is it that simple?

Independent school inspector Ian Jackson has seen both sides of the argument.

As the MD at the CAP Awards, the nationally-acclaimed housekeeping and catering development programme, he and his team have visited, inspected, measured and assessed numerous independent schools and tasted the fruits of catering labours from in-house and outsourced suppliers. Which option delivers the best value for money?

What about food quality? And the less tangible elements like service levels, commitment, and customer interaction where customers are typically pupils, school staff, parents and frequently other users of the school premises?

Experience of 30 years assessing schools, the last seven as an independent business focused on driving improvements, shows a balance that leans towards school establishments employing their own in-house catering staff. But a proportion choose to outsource.

More interesting is the process that must be undertaken when schools choose to change that catering provision.

An astute bursar will want to be sure that the financial investment in contract catering delivers value for money. When moving to contract from in-house, many factors impact that value.

One is the legal requirement to TUPE existing catering staff to the contract provider. Staff will typically transfer to the contractor while keeping their existing terms and conditions of employment. Does that fit with the contractor’s policy?

If so, great. If not, there will be costs associated with making that integration happen to the satisfaction of all parties. Contracts vary in the scope of the delivery.

Larger contract caterers will be able to source produce at competitive rates. Some provide a full service that includes all the catering equipment and developing the menu for the weeks or months ahead, effectively relieving the school of direct responsibility.

That can make budgeting easier. In addition, schools continue to be under pressure on costs, for instance with initiatives such as the ‘living wage’. That makes efficiency more critical.

Catering contractors usually have those efficiencies already established in their procedures, staffing and supply chain.

The CAP team has seen many schools move from one type of provision to the other, then back again – for a variety of reasons. Depending on the contract, there can still be TUPE implications in bringing catering back in-house, but not always.

The benefits of in-house provision are widely reported with staff loyalty, the retention of goodwill and a sense of ‘belonging’ being positive factors.

Despite the responsibility that goes with ‘owning’ the in-house catering team, observation proves it to be the preferred solution among independent schools. Most bursars will have a preference.

It’s not uncommon to see a school’s catering provision change when a new bursar arrives, based on that bursar’s experience with managing a particular type and level of provision, and the value of the benefits.

Whether outsourced or in-house, efficiency remains key. Value in a monetary sense can be increased significantly with even small increments in efficiency.

Staff training, expertise, understanding the tools and techniques of the trade, and adequate catering resources are all areas where small improvements matter.

The CAP Awards strive to drive those increases in efficiency through development programmes based on intense scrutiny (and awards where warranted) of current performance and a roadmap for improvement.

Perhaps surprisingly, the CAP team is frequently engaged by contract catering companies to examine the processes and performance of its school catering teams.

Just like the in-house teams, they are keen to prove their merit to the customer (the school) that contracts them and retain that business.

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