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Are You Making the Most of Your SBL?

September 4, 2018, 12:37 GMT+1
Read in 7 minutes
  • Hayley Dunn examines what the ‘business’ side of being an SBM entails – and considers whether schools are making full use of the skills theirs has to offer
Are You Making the Most of Your SBL?

It’s time to lose the neat tagline that says the benefit of having an SBM is that ‘it saves 30% of headteacher time’. The role is so much more than that.

I try to illustrate the value of my time by explaining the concept of chargeable time in the business world. When I worked in industry, I had to account for my time by recording it in six-minute units. Any time that wasn’t chargeable to a client wasn’t adding profit to the business.

If you calculate your hourly rate, you can easily explain the cost of you undertaking a task and querying whether it’s the best use of your chargeable time. Working out the ‘chargeable time’ cost of meetings is an interesting exercise…

The ‘two-minute rule’

We all have the same number of hours in the day and various demands on our time. The SBM has one of the most diverse roles within the SLT, with responsibility for areas that include finance, buildings, payroll, contracts and health & safety, all of which are important in their own right.

Without managing our time, it can start to manage us. If we aren’t careful we can end up working in a reactive way, only ever dealing with the most urgent tasks – and that can often be because of demands and interruptions from others, rather than because we’re not planning and organising our time well.

Emails are a particular time thief that need a good strategy to manage, so that your inbox doesn’t become your to do list. I use the ‘two minute rule’ – if a task will take less than two minutes, I do it straight away. If it takes any longer, it goes on to a list.

Allocating space in your schedule during term time to work away from school will allow for periods of time where you can work uninterrupted. Planned well in advance, you can let colleagues know that you won’t be available for a morning or a day. I recently saw an SBM share on Twitter that they’re much more productive on days where they work half of the day, because they know they have a short amount of time that has to be focused on their most important tasks.

Key challenges

I recently accessed free coaching through the government’s Women Leading in Education initiative. Working with a coach made me realise that I was working on too many different things and needed to narrow what I focused my time on. I’m now using a simple technique of dividing an A4 page in four and listing my priorities in terms of my work, my professional development, me personally and my family life (see ‘4 Priority Areas’).

There’s a list of challenges that SBMs often share that they’re facing. The main ones include time pressures, funding and cost pressures that make budgets difficult to balance, increased accountability and increased workload.

To that, you can add policy changes and a constant flow of new and updated requirements which can be hard to keep up with, high challenge coupled with low support, isolation, parity with SLT colleagues and the elusive life work balance.

The impact of high challenge, low support in the context of coaching is a member of staff who feels demotivated and disenfranchised. The pressures of unmanageable workloads, hardships in balancing the budget and increased scrutiny all add to the challenge, while budget pressures mean that access to development opportunities become a ‘nice to have if we can afford it’, rather than essential.

Start collaborating

Isolation can occur when an SBM is likely to be the only individual undertaking the role. It can be hard when colleagues don’t understand the workload involved and the role’s competing deadlines, pressures and challenges.

We need to be working closely with other leaders, building a strong relationship with the curriculum lead and adopting a joined up approach, using techniques such as the curriculum-led financial planning modelling and making it possible to shadow other leaders for a day.

One vital way in which SBMs can access support in dealing with their challenges is through collaboration. The School Business Manager’s Handbook is an excellent example of collaborative working, containing experience and tips shared by practitioners at different stages of their career. There are other brilliant examples happening all around the country, such as one SBL Group that’s worked together on GDPR and collaboratively produced a set of resources that would have amounted to an overwhelming task for one person working on their own.

Choose your path

The SBM role is continuing to evolve and develop, throwing up an array of exciting opportunities. Practitioners can pursue a career path that includes roles such as the traditional bursar/school business manager with general responsibility that covers a variety of areas, to more specialist roles in certain disciplines such as finance, HR and PR. For the ambitious types, there’s a growing number of executive roles coming to the fore, including chief finance officers and chief operating officers.

The opportunities available are exciting and diverse for those who are willing to adapt. The challenge for practitioners is to decide which route suits them best and to plan their professional development appropriately. By tailoring my professional development, creating a strong support network and building on my knowledge and skills, I’ve moved from being an LA finance officer to becoming a business manager in a single maintained primary school, and latterly assumed the role of finance director in a MAT.

An essential attribute for those working in the school business management profession is the ability to choose between competing priorities, because there’s never going to be less to do and your time will always be pressured. And yet, many business managers simultaneously continue to be an under-utilised resource in their schools and MATs. Many possess commercial instincts, an ability to take calculated risks and the leadership skills needed to lead and manage strategic plans.

We can be the ones flagging up those early warning signs that things aren’t on track, reporting on potential issues and presenting solutions. It’s time to prepare yourself for being a next generation business leader.

4 priority areas


  • Carry out Month-end checks
  • Draft board report
  • Plan agenda for the team meeting

Professional development

  • Research for article for PSM
  • Arrange training on curriculum-led Financial Planning (CLFP)
  • Prepare for coaching session


  • Dentist appointment


  • Doctors appointment
  • Complete trip consent
  • Book haircuts

Hayley Dunn is a MAT finance director – her book, The School Business Manager’s Handbook, is available now, published by John Catt; follow her at @ShropshireSBM