Justine Berkeley is the managing director of SBM Services Ltd., and a fellow of NASBM. We spoke to her about her experiences as a school business manager and her thoughts about the challenges faced by SBMs across the country.
You can hear more from Justine at The Key’s conference on school business management on 15 October.
Tell us about your background
I began my career as an accountant in industry and moved into education after having children.
I started off working for local authorities providing business management support services for schools, but I didn’t feel I could properly support schools without having worked in one myself. You really need to understand the teaching side of things and the context in which you’re working if you are to provide valuable advice. So, I moved into my first school business manager (SBM) role in a secondary school, and stayed there for seven years.
Since setting up SBM Services, I’ve worked with every kind of school; secondary, primary, special schools, free schools and academies. Everything really!
What did you learn from your first SBM role?
The biggest new skill I came away with was learning how to deal with difficult situations. Schools can understandably be very emotional places at times and you need to be able to handle things calmly and adapt to unpredictable situations.
What did you enjoy most about working in a school?
Before entering education, I worked in large corporations where you don’t always get to see the end result of your efforts.
In schools, you get to really see the impact of what you do. In my first role, the school spent a lot of money rebuilding the dining hall. The school was originally built in the 1950s, so this was their first modern building. You could really see the impact of that on the pupils and how it made them feel.
I also got asked to mentor a group of girls and teach them about business. It felt lovely to be able to connect with them and to be a role model. I would always recommend that SBMs actually find some time to work directly with the pupils.
What is the most challenging thing about being an SBM?
I think the most challenging thing is how multi-skilled you need to be, considering how many tasks fall under your remit.
The SBM role is unique. On a corporate board of directors, you would have a number of people specialising in the areas that an SBM is responsible for such as a finance director, human resources director, and a marketing director. Only one or two of the board’s members are likely to be specialists in the product or service the company provides.
In a school, all of that is turned on its head. You have a leadership team who are all specialists in teaching. An SBM often wears many of those other hats, managing finance, facilities, human resources, and ICT.
Be resourceful! Research skills are paramount. You might specialise at one, or even two, of the many aspects of your role, but you’re unlikely to be an expert in all of them.
But even if you don’t know how to do everything that is asked of you, if you know how to find the information and support that you need, you will be able to succeed.
Also, excellent time management skills are essential. There will never be enough hours to achieve everything, so it is important to focus on the tasks that are going to have the most impact, and are going to best support the school in reaching its vision and targets.
Why do you think SBMs should be on the leadership team?
If you are not a fully integrated part of the leadership team and understand the school’s challenges, I think it would be near impossible to help direct the school’s resources to the areas that matter most. It’s essential that any business manager understands the environment in which they’re working, and sitting on the school leadership team allows SBMs to really understand the business of teaching and learning.
Most strategic decisions will also have a resource implication, be that financial, staff-related, or physical. SBMs need to be able to support the decision-making process by ensuring that adequate resources are available for implementation.
Do you see the SBM role changing in the future?
I can see different models for the SBM role emerging. For instance, the role might get dissected, particularly with the formation of more multi-academy trusts where economies of scale allow the responsibilities of the SBM to be divided into more specialised areas such as finance director, HR director, and marketing director.
What do you think are the biggest challenges for SBMs in the coming year?
Definitely the reductions in funding. I’ve worked in education for 14 years, and we’ve always talked about how there isn’t enough money to do all the things we want to do. But in the last 18 months, the cuts have started to feel very real.
SBMs will have to be much more creative. There will probably need to be more emphasis on income generation and marketing aimed at bringing more pupils and income into the school.
SBMs are also going to have to help their schools get better systems in place for performance management linked to pay awards. Funds will not allow us to continue to do things the way we have always done by rewarding everyone the same way.
However, every challenge brings new opportunities. This is a fantastic time for SBMs to really showcase how valuable the role is, and the significant impact they can have on improving schools.