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SBLs are leading the way

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The role of school business leaders (SBLs) has evolved faster than any other leadership role over the last five years. When I started working with the group of professionals then known at NAHT as school business managers (SBMs), the level of accountability and responsibility they carried in schools varied enormously. Many were still struggling to secure a place on the senior leadership team and the professional respect they deserved. Some primary schools didn’t have an SBM role at all, with their school business management responsibilities carried out by the head managing administrative staff.

That’s extremely rare now, as schools have grown to realise the enormous value, both financial and in terms of educational attainment, an empowered SBL can bring into their school or group of schools or academies. Despite the funding crisis in schools, heads have recognised that this role is key to ensuring they manage their funding effectively, get best value out of staffing structures, secure procurement saving, minimise the cost of running their premises and market their school to achieve the pupil numbers they need.

These professionals are at the frontline of so many challenges facing schools. They are juggling staffing requirements at a time when teacher recruitment is at an all-time low, and workload pressures are driving morale down and teachers out of the profession. Much of the work involved in academising, or joining or growing a multi-academy trust, will fall to the SBL in a school – with changes to school finances and staffing structures and branding, for example, often much more significant than changes to teaching and learning in the first instance.

The move towards schools collaborating in groups under federations or multi-academy trusts has seen a range of new roles in group structures, with some SBLs remaining generalists and other structures favouring specialist directors of finance, HR directors and many others, so at NAHT these professionals are now described as school business leaders. What is clear is that school business leadership has moved from the ‘back office’ to the frontline in schools, led by some of the most outstanding professionals in education.

Nilesh Pandya, a school business manager at Roding Primary School with Provision for Deaf Children, on the key contribution SBLs make in schools.

In the current financial climate, the expectation on SBLs to demonstrate expert and professional leadership is as high as ever. With funding becoming tighter and support services dwindling, schools are having to find innovative ways of doing more for less – and SBLs are at the forefront of leading initiatives that ensure adequate resources are available to senior leadership teams to deliver on teaching and learning.

One such example can be found in the London Borough of Redbridge, where I work. SBMs and head teachers from both the secondary and primary sectors have collaborated on leading procurement activities on behalf of a large collective of more than 50 schools, known as the Redbridge Education Partnership, to achieve best value in purchasing key support services for schools in the borough, where traditionally schools relied upon the help and assistance of local authority services.

SBLs from various schools are at the forefront of this initiative. They lead schools through what has been unchartered territory for some, negotiating with brokers, purchasing groups and suppliers in complex and high-value contracts, where the price for not doing the correct due diligence can have significant consequences for a large number of schools that are struggling for funding and under constant pressure to deliver the high standard of education parents and carers have become accustomed to.

Many head teachers are more than capable of leading on such activities. However, let’s face it, most heads agree their priority is, and always will be, providing the best possible opportunities for their pupils, which of course is the way it should be. That is where we, as SBLs, can demonstrate leadership, innovation and inspiration to step in and bridge that gap between the need to become more agile and efficient and focusing on the ‘day job’ of teaching and learning, which is what we are all here to enable.

Grahame Colclough, schools business manager at Burnwood Community School, shares his thoughts on being an SBL.

I started the role of school business manager in 2010, although it only feels like yesterday. Since then the educational landscape has changed so much and developed such that the role of a SBL is now paramount in these complex organisations. It’s now clear the role of an SBL firmly sits in the school leadership team. I do occasionally find one or two people who may not agree, but after a quick chat (or a long one – I can waffle) their opinion changes.

It’s seen by some that the role of the SBL concerns finance – and of course this is what allows the organisation to function, and it is a massive part of the role. But what some don’t realise is that HR, estate management and governance, among other things, are just as important. It is generally the SBL who leads on these areas and who has to juggle the various complexities daily, keeping up to date on legislation and Department for Education requirements. SBLs know that by leading on these areas, it takes an enormous burden off the head teacher – as do the roles of deputy and assistant heads – and allows them to focus on the core business of the organisation: education. So we accept change, adapt and make it work, sometimes to the detriment of our own well-being.

 Being an SBL is not for the faint hearted. It’s tough out there. There are some recommendations you don’t want to make, there are improvements you would love to be able to fund, there are HR discussions you wish you were not having. It can be a lonely role too, but I am so fortunate to be part of an amazingly strong leadership team that understands the pressures SBLs face; we are a team.

 I think that it is safe to say the role of an SBL is recognised as a core leader in any school, and, with the ever-growing responsibilities placed on schools, we will remain a vital part of any school leadership team. School business leadership is a vocation that takes many forms and titles, but one thing for sure is that we are school leaders, working together to support our schools on their journey, wherever that may lead. 

First published 20 June 2019