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School business management: looking to the future

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As a researcher at The Key, I attend lots of events and conferences throughout the year. However, I’ve never seen as much solidarity among the attendees as I did at The Key’s event for school business managers (SBMs) and bursars, held in Birmingham in October.

Throughout the day there was overwhelming agreement that the contribution of SBMs is under-appreciated by headteachers and other colleagues. A number of those present bemoaned the fact that they’re excluded from the senior leadership team. A few had even been accused, when trying to better understand teaching and learning, of sticking their noses in where they weren’t welcome. It was clear that in many schools there are serious differences when it comes to understanding the purpose and value of SBMs.

However, it wasn’t all doom and gloom, and a handful of SBMs commented on the positive relationships they have in their schools. A shining example sat at the front of the room in the form of one SBM and her headteacher, who had come along together to learn more about school business management. Another came from an SBM I spoke to who praised his headteacher’s efforts in getting the school business management structure right. He told me that he shares the role with a colleague, with each taking responsibility for certain aspects.

This is the example that sprang to mind when I attended a session entitled ‘Future-proofing your school business management’, run by SBM consultant Graeme Hornsby. Graeme’s main point was simple: schools don’t need an effective business manager to be successful, but effective business management – in whatever form – does work.

There was a general agreement at the event that SBMs cannot single-handedly oversee everything outside of teaching and learning. So it was surprising to find that not many schools have considered alternative models of business management.

Looking to the future, Graeme suggested that the evolving nature of school leadership may eventually force schools to be more business-minded. And he’s not alone. This is a prediction aired by many of the SBMs I’ve spoken to. However, no one seems sure how this will look in practice.

One theory I’ve come across is that the SBM may one day be on a par with the headteacher, shouldering responsibility for the running of the school while the head takes care of teaching and learning. Those in favour argue that headteachers are usually excellent teachers who didn’t join the profession because they relished the administrative burden of running a school. So, if these top teachers are allowed to remain focused on securing the best possible teaching and learning, it would leave room for those with the right skills and experience to deal with the challenge of keeping the school open each day.

There’s no doubt it’s a prickly subject among school leaders. I know many feel strongly that schools should be led by those with teaching experience, and there’s a clear argument that state education shouldn’t be modelled on private sector business. But given the radical pace of change in the education landscape at present, and the qualities SBMs can bring to the table, I think anything is possible.

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