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School business professionals: how are they managing change?

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MATs, free schools and funding pressures are just three of the massive changes schools are going through that affect their business professionals. How are they coping? How do they need to adapt? 

In a major piece of work commissioned by The Institute of School Business Leadership (ISBL), Manchester Metropolitan University’s Dr Fiona Creaby got the views of a large number of school business professionals at all ages and stages of their careers. 

She found a good level of professional confidence, as well as confidence in their ability to adapt and grow in the future. But she found a fracturing of the old identity of school business professionals and a very new landscape. 

She told the BELMAS educational leadership conference: “There were apprehensions about the uncertain changing nature of the role of school business professionals in the wake of structural reform, increasing financial pressures, growing workload, shrinking support in schools and local authorities, inequalities in school leadership, and a lack of status and voice in-school and across the sector.” 

Another key tension was the outlook and lack of understanding of senior leaders and teachers about the current contribution and value of the school business professional, and their future potential. 

“This highlighted the need for a wide marketing exercise and sector-level collaboration to promote and raise the status of the profession while promoting the importance of knowledge sharing, networking, equality across school leadership structures, and exploration of succession planning and continuing professional development (CPD) opportunities,” she said. 

What are the challenges facing school business professionals?

Fiona identifies several difficulties:

  • Lack of status for school business professionals
  • Growing structural diversity in schools, but all too often implemented without school business professionals’ input
  • Financial pressures, shrinking support and resources, and increasing workload
  • Inequalities in school leadership structure, pay and CPD
  • Inconsistent alliances between the school leader and the school business professional, coupled with an insufficient understanding by the senior leadership team of governance and the business professional’s role
  • Lack of clarity around career pathways and whether or not to specialise. 

Participants told Fiona that while the role had evolved, understanding of the responsibility of school business professionals had not kept pace with this. 

School business professionals could also find it difficult if their school became part of a MAT without sufficient clarity around roles. 

However, one of the biggest issues for them that she has identified is how they should respond to their changing working environment: should they stay as generalists or train for the more specialist roles demanded in large MATs? “This feeling appears greatest in primary schools, where there are likely to be more generalist staff and they are less likely to have become academies. Many school business professionals debated the generalist role, but they also felt it important to protect because of the value it adds at the individual school level. 

“But the population of school business professionals is now very diverse – I’ve met former senior people from the military and local authorities, as well as the people who worked their way up from a school office job over several years. The professional population is now very diverse, and plenty of them are wondering what they should do next as the structures around them evolve. 

“It’s interesting that the very confident individuals have the absolute backing of their head teacher, who they almost universally describe as ‘forward-thinking’ with a strong understanding of business leadership and governance.” However, this contrasted with those who felt undervalued and often spoke of the lack of opportunity to contribute to school development despite their knowledge and background placing them in a strong position to do so. This underpinned the importance of the head teacher and school business professional alliance in schools. 

What can school business professionals do to help themselves?

The research suggests the importance of networking with others, attending knowledge events, and identifying role models and mentors for support and advice.

School business professionals said taking ownership of their career development, and asserting their need to network and share knowledge outside of the school were central to their role and increasing their potential for impact in the job. Suggestions include the following: 

  • Joining local networks and regional groups, and even developing one if necessary
  • Taking part in knowledge sharing, either through events or on social media
  • Subscribing to professional literatures or blogs to remain abreast of sector developments
  • Taking an active role in a professional body for school business professionals
  • Finding or becoming a mentor
  • Being a role model for school business professionals’ professional values and encouraging the development of colleagues at all levels.

Fiona also suggests the profession should call for more clarity around career pathways, qualifications, CPD and some unpicking of the debate around working in general or specialist roles. 

“Sustaining and increasing work to develop, promote and market the profession through collaboration between professional bodies and the government is a vital way forward for its growth,” she adds. 

BELMAS is an educational leadership research association open to school and college leaders at all levels as well as academics. It encourages members to generate and share ideas and good practice. BELMAS is an independent voice supporting quality education from effective leadership and management. Find out more at www.BELMAS.org.uk

Susan Young

Susan Young is a journalist who has been specialising in education for more than 20 years. She was news editor and an assistant editor on the TES, where she created and edited a section for school leaders, and has also worked for the Observer and the Express.

As a freelancer, Susan writes for and works with a range of educational organisations, including the British Educational Leadership Management and Administration Society (BELMAS) and English UK.

She's interested in most things in education, from politics to practicality, but particularly loves hearing from professionals about the initiatives they're putting in place in their schools to make things better. Do get in touch.

First published 18 July 2018