As secondary schools are busy invigilating the first GCSE and A level examinations in three years, the pressure to invest in digitisation to enable remote learning programmes remains an all-too-recent memory. Many schools became a lot more receptive to the benefits of pedagogical technology to help drive learning outcomes during the pandemic. The new pressure for schools - also the same as we’re facing in all corners of society currently - is that of rapid rising inflation. As schools plan for their new academic year, headteachers and their leadership teams will be acutely aware of the need for even greater cost control.
How much can technology help with cost control? Manual process or outdated and fragmented systems can make cost control an almost impossible challenge, often at risk of human errors, disjointed visibility and misalignment of reporting. Modernising systems can have a significant uplift for schools, particularly in procurement and catering management.
Staffing is the biggest cost for schools, followed by catering, so controlling food costs is pivotal to staying on budget. With the Ukraine crisis following hard on the heels of the pandemic and Brexit, the knock-on effects has brought with them a raft of challenges for school catering teams. These challenges not only stem from a supply chain perspective, but also the obvious impact to the availability and rising cost of food. And there is only so much culinary teams can do to save on portions. They also need to look at being more efficient and less wasteful.
Communication and price comparison is key to controlling costs and avoiding overspend, but supply chain fragility along with rising costs is proving to be a risk for schools’ exceeding budgets. This can mean they are often paying over and above for food items, which compounds the issue. Thankfully, catering procurement technology is evolving today to provide schools with wider access to the best prices and quality of goods, such as expanding the supplier network and with it the opportunity to negotiate with local suppliers on costs. This technology can also help the schools catering team adapt recipes and menus to counter any issues in the case of supply issues and food shortages.
It is also important for schools to have transparency over what food items they need rather than what they ‘think’ they need because this ‘guessing’ approach is likely to lead to overordering. Using a catering technology platform that provides real time visibility of available stock helps reduce the room for error when new catering orders are placed. Technology is also making it easier to set spending limits for individual staff and to raise alerts with leadership if a member of the team is about to exceed a budget.
Nutrition and allergy tracking is another area where schools are using technology to adapt to student dining requirements and lifestyle choices, from veganism and vegetarianism to dietary requirements, allergies and intolerances, schools have to be a step ahead of the game when managing what students are eating. This can of course be a minefield for catering teams and chefs. Product availability such as gluten free flour, for instance, has been a challenge previously, with a multitude of supply issues and where a substitute or regular flour just isn’t possible. Products such as pastries and snacks that are suitable for a gluten free diet are improving all of the time though, and it is now possible to buy in a good range of these items from mainstream suppliers.
Most schools have a nut and sesame free policy to provide reassurance to pupils and parents, although many schools are aiming for allergen free menus in the future. Menu software can be very helpful in omitting specific or all allergens in recipes and this kind of technology will be key for the future in adapting menu planning.
With new labelling laws in force, many schools have been buying in pre-packed items that they used to make in-house such as sandwiches, baguettes, yoghurt and fruit pots etc. to reduce the need to produce labels and to mitigate risk. Automatic labelling technology systems that print the allergens onto the label is a key defence tool and many systems allow you to link that to your menu publishing and recipe systems too.
Reducing human error
Despite the challenges schools face around controlling costs, the good news is there are cost effective solutions available that are light on implementation costs and tough on budget overspend. Whilst little is written about the role of food and nutrition in educational performance, from improved service and greater efficiencies, to better stock management, less wastage and nutrition and allergy tracking, school catering not only holds the key to improved cost control and service but also the improved nutrition of each and every student. What the pandemic has shown us is that the benefits of the technology can really deliver positive and transformative outcomes for schools – enhancing both purse strings and pedagogy. Here’s to happy outcomes to this year’s cohort sitting public examinations. And to school budgets over the next academic year too.