10,000 steps a day: trying to keep up with the school business manager

Nicola West Jones
Nicola West Jones
When our team first discussed conducting a piece of research on School Business Managers (SBMs) back in August 2019, I definitely did not imagine that it would take us more than a year to publish the resulting report. What should have been a straightforward project over a term, evolved to be a fascinating “before and after” glimpse into the effects of the Covid-19 pandemic on a key segment of our school workforce.

Let me take you back to August 2019. We had chosen to study SBMs, to really get under the skin of their needs, to gain insights on their daily lives and challenges. We would take these insights and adapt The Key’s products and content to better serve them, where needed. We started with an ethnographic study – which is a fancy way of saying that we spent a full day shadowing 3 SBMs, not letting them out of sight, to truly live “a day in the life” with them. We went to Kent, Nottinghamshire and London, arriving in the dark as the site manager opened the gates.

It was a fascinating experience. Physically following around an SBM is pretty exhausting. They don’t stop. Getting the 10,000 steps done in a day is a doddle, as they pace the corridors, tracking down teachers who need to sign HR forms, site managers who need to fix broken equipment, pupils who need medication, absent cooks, contractors who have gone AWOL, SLT who need to make critical decisions. Someone is always looking for them, and they are always on the hunt. Everything is urgent, much is reactive. 

How do they keep on top of this, alongside the finance, HR and premises management that is their core role? As well as many online and offline versions of the “to-do” list, a fair amount resides in their heads. Insomnia, as a direct result of carrying the weight of so many tasks in their brains, is rife. 

Sitting down to work on the budget, a big part of their responsibility, allows relief to their feet but not to their stress levels. Many are trained accountants, but the sheer complexity of schools’ funding, as well as the myriad ways of collecting income (childcare vouchers, apps, the occasional cash in an unmarked envelope) is overwhelming.   

In short, we learned a lot about their day to day and strategic challenges, and then followed that up by interviewing a further 7 SBMs in other schools. The picture was the same. We ran a survey in December 2019 to validate our findings, which bore out the same analysis – SBMs were in survival mode, and something had to give. 

Just when we were about to publish these results, the pandemic hit. We paused – it felt totally inappropriate to spend limited resource on designing a nice report when we at The Key had never been busier, writing an enormous amount of new content to address ever-changing government guidance and growing panic in schools. But by July, we were curious – how had these same SBMs who were already close to burnout before the pandemic, coped since? What had changed for them? We tentatively issued another survey, wondering whether we were asking too much of them, but had over 1,550 respond. The result of that second survey is this report, which compares life before and after March 2020. Spoiler alert: things got a lot worse.

My key takeaways are around increases in mental health and well-being challenges related to workload, a dialing down of time spent on finance with a dialing up on premises management (for which, we know, very few are adequately trained), and finally, a budget impasse. All those lidded bins, sinks in the playground, perspex screens and vats of sanitiser don’t come cheap, and the days where schools carried a healthy surplus budget to cover the unexpected are over. But there’s lots more in this report that I hope will give people cause to reflect and take action. Moreover, we need to recognise that alongside their colleagues on the senior leadership team, SBMs have been, and continue to be, truly heroic.  

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