Building a content driven service to help schools buy goods and services

Department for Education


The service was delivered entirely remotely during lockdown, with most of the team only ever meeting online

The Department for Education’s Schools Buying Strategy set out to help schools save £1 billion on buying goods and services. With our partners Paper, we delivered the first part of a new end-to-end service

DfE’s Schools Commercial team wanted to build a new in-house service to make procurement simpler and more accessible for the people responsible for buying for schools. A team from DfE, our partner agency Paper and dxw, worked together in a blended, multidisciplinary team to research, design and deliver part of this new service.


Paper asked us to work with them to deliver the first part of the end-to-end service called ‘Get help buying for schools’ which went live last year. Our aim was to reduce the reliance of schools on specialist consultants which can be expensive, and make sure the procurement process is simple enough to remove the need for any in-house commercial capability too.

We started by introducing a new step-by-step approach to procurement to guide schools’ buyers through the process of buying goods and services. This helped buyers to plan how to buy for their schools, taking them through the questions they need to consider to make sure they are complying with their school financial policy and public procurement policy.

Together, we then designed and built an application to support schools when they are preparing to engage the market. This new content-driven web-based application helped schools produce the specifications they need when engaging suppliers. It introduced a new standardised approach to specify what a school needs to buy and incorporates the standards that all schools’ suppliers need to meet.

What we did

Taking a modular approach

We started by breaking down a large complex problem space into deliverable steps, working with the other delivery teams to shape the full solution. We identified multiple primary users, including schools’ buyers and the DfE staff who will be responsible for maintaining and iterating the service in future.

We worked with subject matter experts to reduce the complexity of the procurement process so it didn’t require any specialist capability. Initially we focussed on one user journey for spending on catering, which we knew was particularly complex. We implemented a content management system (CMS) that could then be scaled across many different categories of spend.

Using a content management system

The solution we developed was a hybrid of an off-the-shelf CMS, Contentful, alongside a bespoke Ruby on Rails application for presenting content to our end-users.  Using Contentful meant that when we were building the service, the content designers on the team could write questions, change the flow of a user journey and update specification texts without any developer support. 

By storing underlying content within a CMS and the interactions of a user in two separate places, the service was driven by configuration rather than code. This:

  • used less developer time and expertise 
  • gave content designers autonomy to scale the service by adding new categories of spend, and
  • meant it would be easier to maintain and update content in future to reflect any changes to procurement standards and regulations

Integrating with common components

We integrated the service with existing common components within DfE, such as DfE Sign-in, used patterns from the GOV.UK Design system and hosted the service on Government Platform as a Service.

Building capability

The service was delivered entirely remotely during lockdown, with most of the team only ever meeting online. As a supplier team, we wanted to make sure the future service could be maintained and iterated by an in-house digital delivery team. When we started working with the Schools Commercial team, there was a only small amount of digital capability in house, so we put a lot of effort into sharing our knowledge of digital delivery and building the capability of the team.

The service successfully met the standard at alpha assessment and passed all of DfE’s IT health check criteria. When we left, the internal delivery team was progressing the development of the service in private beta, before moving to go live.