A recent article by the journalist and broadcaster Alastair Stewart asked whether “the government should take outsourcing a radical step further”. As an owner of a contract caterer, of course I believe outsourcing is a valuable service. Whilst the article proposed benefits for outsourcing a range of government services, it made me reflect on the 40 percent or so of independent schools that manage their catering services in-house. As such, I started questioning whether there is more that we, as catering specialists, can do to demonstrate the benefits of outsourcing.
It should go without saying that the least a school outsourcing its food service should expect is an improved standard. Any good caterer will aim to maintain the good but ultimately improve the not-so-good qualities of the existing service. Throughout my years in the sector, I have found that, with in-house, the service needs to be revitalised. A bursar once told me that having employed our services, the catering at his school advanced by 10 years in the space of 10 weeks.
As well as the improvements to standards, a school with outsourced catering ought to also have the luxury of not worrying about running this side of its affairs. Not being distracted from the education of pupils, safe in the knowledge that there will be a nutritional and tasty meal at lunchtime. All of which is provided without the hassle of overseeing its production, dealing with employment issues or worrying about the latest health and safety requirements. Knowledge and experience of food service and its countless issues are benefits that a contract caterer can provide.
Providing the meals is only one aspect and, as such, a contract caterer these days also offers an interactive and engaging approach for its ‘customers’ to know more about their food. Delivering educational activities about catering can help pupils understand and encourage consumption of certain foods that will help increase concentration in the classroom as well as stamina on the sports field. This kind of educational engagement is always beneficial to both the school and to its pupils.
Any kind of change can be daunting and therefore it is essential for a caterer to support the school and the catering team in the transition. Carefully managing changes can avoid longer term damage. As such, we have found that offering structured training and support has not only boosted morale during the transfer process, but has opened everyone’s eyes to a whole new world of school catering.
Discussing this article with another bursar, he told me that making the decision to outsource his school’s catering provision was something the school took very seriously. It involved looking at the pros and cons and researching what each of the various caterers (of which we were one) would offer both his pupils and his catering team. In asking him about what benefits he has seen since our employment, he said that there had been a vast improvement across all aspects and that outsourcing has enabled the school management team the time and space to focus on other areas, leaving the catering to the caterers.
So there can be many benefits to outsourcing. By doing so, schools will put the specialists in charge of what they are good at, whether it is catering or educating. It should also create a better work environment for the catering team. While the process can seem daunting, the benefits are definitely worth serious consideration. As Alastair said in his article “Contract catering is a classic example of a sublet industry: they do, more cheaply and more efficiently, stuff that is secondary to the core business of an enterprise but vital to its functioning and to the contentment of its staff.” Hear, hear to that, although I would change this “to its staff and pupils”.
Sue Parfett, Brookwood Partnership