The age of the school business manager

Sara Martin
Sara Martin

It was a mixed bag of emotions at The Key’s school business management conference last month.

On the one hand, there was a sense of trepidation about what lies ahead for schools. It doesn’t take a mathematician or an experienced school business manager (SBM) – and I should know, because I am neither of those things – to work out that rising pupil numbers coupled with increasing employer costs equal a financial headache for schools. One delegate told me it’s the worst situation she’s seen in 25 years of managing school finance.

I’m sure there’s plenty out there written by actual mathematicians and SBMs to explain the urgency of the situation in all its bleak detail, so for now I will simply point members of The Key for School Leaders to our news summary (log in required) and warn you that it doesn’t make for pretty reading.

On the other, much brighter hand, I detected a buzz of excitement about what all this will mean for the evolving role of SBMs.

Speakers at the conference, though frank about the worrying situation, urged the audience not to shy away from impending and current challenges.

Delegates concerned at the prospect of academisation were told in no uncertain terms not to fear change, but to take a proactive role at the forefront of it. As an SBM, you have the skills not simply to manage change, but to use it as an opportunity to demonstrate your impact – and redefine the SBM’s role in the process.

The SBMs among you don’t need me to point out just how varied your role is. But it may be worth mentioning for the benefit of others that in a whole day of befriending SBMs, I didn’t find two whose day-to-day jobs look alike. It was rather fascinating to be among 170 professionals with one shared goal of enabling teaching and learning, and 170 unique ways of going about it. A delegate summed the role up nicely when she explained that she is involved in everything in her school except the direct teaching of pupils – and then corrected herself as she realised that pupils are taught valuable social skills in their daily interactions with every adult in the school, including the SBM.

This week, the National Association of School Business Management (NASBM) released its standards for school business management professionals. The standards are intended to provide a framework for the recruitment, performance management and career development of SBMs, and will hopefully bring more authority to a role that can unfortunately sometimes be overlooked.

There was a shared chuckle of exasperation when delegates were asked how often their job is misunderstood, and outright concern when it emerged that over half of delegates surveyed do not feel that their headteacher fully understands what the SBM’s role involves.

After hearing a number of delegates talk emphatically about the importance of a strong working relationship with their headteacher, this was rather worrying.  A good headteacher/SBM partnership has endless benefits for the school as a whole: it can take pressure off the headteacher, allow the SBM more opportunities to implement ideas, and ultimately bring together expertise in both business and learning to raise outcomes for every child in the school. I picture the dream headteacher/SBM relationship as on par with Buzz and Woody (we at The Key have our own ideas about who would be which character, but we’ll leave you to debate that amongst yourselves).

SONY DSC

Woody is overjoyed at his SBM’s ingenious plan to halve the budget deficit within a year

The conference, for all its excellent speakers and superb cake selection, didn’t have an answer to the question of exactly how a headteacher and SBM can create the perfect working relationship. I suspect this is because the answer comes from within schools themselves. Members of The Key for School Leaders can log in to read case studies from headteachers and SBMs about how they work together effectively, which may provide some inspiration. Like any successful partnership, these relationships are not built overnight (Buzz and Woody’s took three films and 14 years, after all). But, as many schools and Toy Story 3 will tell you, the results are well worth it.

In the meantime, be inspired by the knowledge that these are exciting times for SBMs. There were smiles on delegates’ faces as they left the conference, which I’m sure had as much to do with the future as with the aforementioned cake. It also had a lot to do with Russell Dalton, finance and business director at Pershore High School, who rounded off the day with more words of encouragement and the following challenge: spend one day outside your comfort zone.

What would happen to SBMs, schools and outcomes for children and young people across the country if SBMs took on that challenge? Start the ball rolling and let us know.

*92 delegates took part in the poll. Of these, 40 said their headteacher understands the role and they work really well together as a result. 41 responded ‘sometimes’, and 10 did not feel that their headteacher understands the role at all.


Want to know more about the new professional standards for SBMs? Members of The Key for School Leaders can log in to see our QuickRead summary of the document.

You might not know that we have a dedicated zone for SBMs on The Key. It’s packed with practical tools to help you in your day-to-day role and articles to help you plan your time and look ahead. Why not take a look and start saving time now?

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