Going back to first principles, why is school business leadership necessary?
- To safeguard assets
- To effectively manage resources
School business professionals (SBPs) deal with much more than just finances. Resources are everything we touch and have at our disposal.
When we talk about resources, it’s easy to think of classroom consumables, equipment, facilities and perhaps technology. But knowledge, talent and leadership capability also form part of the range of resources available to us.
SBPs have a portfolio of responsibilities and skills that equip to them to have unique oversight of the optimal deployment of these precious resources.
They are therefore able to supplement and complement the skills of other school leaders.
School business manager decisions
With increased autonomy, schools and trusts are not only making the majority of decisions about how to use their funds and deploy resources but also need expertise to help them to do so.
This ensures pedagogically focused school leaders are free from the distraction of operational matters for which they have little knowledge or training.
There is now universal acknowledgement that schools and trusts need access to a competent business professional, and therefore it is essential to ensure there is enough supply to meet the need.
Additionally, this community of education professionals need systematic training to ensure the quality and effectiveness of their practice remains high.
In assessing the capability of the current workforce, we need to ask the following questions:
- What does the sector need from the SBP workforce?
- How big is the capability gap?
- Do all education stakeholders – SBPs, heads, CEOs, governors and trustees – recognise a skills and knowledge gap?
- Do school leaders and governing bodies/trustees know what they need?
- Do we need to be more prescriptive about minimum standards and professional qualifications?
- What is the ambition and improvement appetite for SBPs across the sector?
- How do we incentivise continuing professional development (CPD) and continuous improvement (bursaries, encouragement from trustees and other senior leaders, the role of the Department for Education)?
- Does the existing CPD provision respond to both the needs of practitioners and, perhaps more fundamentally, the needs of the sector?
In a deregulated environment, we are asking individual schools and trusts to decide for themselves whether the school business leadership arrangements they have in place are adequate.
Only when institutions run into problems related to compliance, financial solvency or misappropriation is the question of competency and capability really brought into sharp focus.
This often results in damage to reputations, emotional turmoil for those involved or, worse still, career jeopardy.
By proportionately responding to the questions posed above we can perhaps mitigate against such scenarios often not born out of deliberate negligence but a lack of understanding, a misguided view of accountability and insufficient access to technical expertise.
We know that many education professionals are considering exiting the profession. In many cases, this is not because they have lost their passion for their chosen vocation but because the demands being placed on them are unsustainable.
Teachers are tired of the reporting and accountability burdens; heads no longer know which way to turn when drowning in a sea of new directives, ever-changing guidance, high-stakes accountability and problems associated to teacher attrition; school business leaders are spread so thinly trying to take up the slack whilst managing an already impossible workload – the system is at breaking point.
This gloomy picture is further exacerbated where there has been no honest audit of competency and capability.
In order to survive and thrive during periods of turbulence such as the one created by the pandemic, it is important to develop organisational resilience.
This means having the right people doing the right things at the right time. It requires schools and trusts to assess competency and capacity across the pillars of pedagogy, governance and business.
It requires the careful and strategic deployment of talent. Teachers teaching according to their specialism and responding to the identified needs of pupils, leaders leading in the areas in which they are equipped to add the most value, a business professional or team with the appropriate skills to cover the non-pedagogical areas of a school or trust, and governance arrangements with sufficient professional diversity to offer appropriate challenge to the executive.
These skills might include being qualified to a level that ensures adherence to any regulatory or legal frameworks and with sufficient business acumen to confidently safeguard assets and optimise resources.
Playing to your strengths
There should be no ambiguity over lines of accountability, no blurring of areas of responsibility, and no mission creep, with each of the actors understanding their contribution to the school or trust’s aims and staying in their metaphorical lanes.
This is not to say that governors, business leaders and pedagogical professionals shouldn’t lean into each other’s worlds and take an interest; it’s simply about playing to your strengths and not being drawn into activities that could distract you from your core duties.
My next observation is slightly anecdotal, but I suspect that the stress and workload suffered by many SBPs is a result of trying to be “all things to all men”.
Whilst trying to stay on top of a very demanding job involving financial oversight, HR compliance, procurement and premises management, it is then a huge ask to expect involvement for example in pastoral care, safeguarding and perhaps even some pupil supervision.
That’s why staying in your lane is so important.
Larger structures and MATs in particular are now introducing more specialist roles to support their generalist, and where functions can be centralised, some of the administrative burden is being taken away from the local context.
In smaller schools, this is not possible, so if we want to protect the wellbeing of our SBPs, we need to be much clearer about what we expect from the role and indeed where they can add the most value.
But this requires discipline both on the part of the head teacher and the SBP.
The system is evolving, complexity is increasing, and the sector is suffering. But if we pause and recalibrate, we can weather this turbulence.
We need the professional confidence to set our own expectations of our role and set reasonable boundaries in terms what others expect of us.
Agree the lane you’re swimming in and stay in it!
What to look for when recruiting a school business manager
- leadership skills
- business management skills
- customer service skills
- the ability to work well with others
- to be flexible and open to change
- maths and financial skills
- the ability to accept criticism and work well under pressure
Stephen Morales is chief executive of the Institute of School Business Leadership.