The full version of this article appeared in the 27 November edition of SecEd.
When researching and writing articles for The Key’s members, I often consult experienced school business managers or bursars. These conversations have made me realise how difficult it is to generalise about the nature of their role. I have found that in some schools SBMs are part of the senior leadership team (SLT), and in others schools they are not. Some SBMs are accountable to the headteacher or a deputy, while others are on a par with the headteacher and report directly to the governing body. In one school the SBM might manage a number of staff, but in a neighbouring school the SBM might not manage anyone.
Last year I interviewed a group of SBMs in primary and secondary schools to try and pin down exactly what they do. I first asked them, “What does your average day look like?” They all said there is no such thing; indeed to a few it seemed the idea of “an average day” was almost laughable. Nonetheless, though the routine may vary, I identified some common tasks associated with the role.
All of the SBMs I spoke to noted that financial management and administration were extremely important day-to-day; tasks such as setting, monitoring and reporting the budget took up a lot of their time. This was not surprising. I think most people in the education sector would strongly associate SBMs and bursars with financial management. However, finance is only part of it.
I found that a big part of the role is line management. Data from The Key for School Leaders supports this finding. SBMs using our service in the summer term 2014 were particularly interested in the performance management of administrative staff, pay statements for teachers, and interview questions and recruitment tasks. Interest in staff matters sat alongside interest in articles about statutory policies and documents and the role of the SBM during Ofsted inspection.
Our data also showed that in summer term 2014, SBMs frequently sought information about engaging with parents and carers. I found this surprising because when I first began reflecting on the SBM role, I did not picture it as parent-facing. I assumed that teachers and support staff were much more likely to be engaged with talking to parents. However, I have presented these findings to SBMs at recent conferences and asked whether it reflects their experience. The vast majority of SBMs confirmed that talking to parents is a big and increasingly important part of their job. The introduction of universal infant free school meals (FSM) and changes to funding for special educational needs (SEN) have increased this trend, as has the need to register children for the pupil premium.
I have shared this view of SBMs as school leaders with wide-ranging responsibilities at local working groups of SBMs that I have attended. Subsequent group discussions broadened my knowledge of the SBM role still further. In several cases SBMs expressed frustration that their jobs are misunderstood by colleagues. They feel headteachers and senior leaders tend to think of the SBM role as budget-focused and do not take into account all the varied ways SBMs contribute to the school. Consequently, some SBMs feel undervalued. Perhaps some of this dissatisfaction can be chalked up to the stresses of working in the current education climate, but I think it can also be explained by the ambiguous origins of the SBM role.
In recent years the idea of schools as businesses has gained momentum, possibly fuelled by the growth of academies and increasing school autonomy. Business management responsibilities were often tacked on to existing roles and, consequently, an SBM or bursar may have started out in a very different job to the one they have now. School leaders may struggle to embrace them as fully-fledged members of the SLT because the point at which an SBM progressed past the level of support staff is unclear. Of course this is not true in all schools; for example, some SBMs work across academy chains or federations and operate at a level higher than the headteachers of individual schools. Nevertheless, unless a school really appreciates the need for effective school business management and everything this involves, there remains a risk that the SBM will sit in a grey area with responsibilities equal to that of senior staff but without the recognition.
I think the key to understanding the SBM role is to remember that a school is also a business – dealing with employees, ‘customers’ and other stakeholders. An SBM does not just set the budget and manage the money side of things; he or she line manages staff and deals directly with parents, pupils, suppliers and governors. Some senior leaders are already very comfortable thinking in this way and work with SBMs accordingly, but for others a shift in mindset may be overdue.