Schools use the phrase “school business manager” rather than “school business leader”. It’s time that was changed

As Sarah Jones pointed out recently that school business managers (SBM), with headteachers and governors, are the “trinity” of school leadership, with all three necessary to achieve outstanding and effective leadership (Schools Week, January 10)

As a headteacher of two secondary schools, I have experienced leadership with and without an SBM. It is definitely easier to have a highly capable and strategic SBM as part of the leadership and management team (LMT).

I have an aversion to the word “senior” and believe that the typical acronym “SLT” leaves out leadership’s all-important yet poor relation: management. Does the fact that the education sector uses the phrase “school business manager” rather than “school business leader” suggest that schools want a “manager” rather than “leader”? Or does the M merely appear less threatening?

In 2010, Surrey asked me to provide interim leadership for a local junior school. It was the first time in the county’s history that a leader from one sector led two schools simultaneously across the primary-secondary divide. As my work in the primary sector increased, I became concerned at the disparity between the role of the SBM within the secondary sector compared with the primary. Are SBMs finance officers? Or bursars? Or office managers? Or all three in one Factor in the special sector and we find that the definition of the main roles and responsibilities of the SBM vary.

The role of an SBM can be shaped into something integral and special

Compare this to headteachers. We know what heads should do and are challenged by the new headteacher standards. We know the role and importance of a governing body, whether as an academy or non-academy. The clarity, however, surrounding the role of an SBM there to be shaped into something integral and special. The “professional standards” currently being worked on by the National Association of School Business Managers should support this.

As an executive principal across a series of schools, I am keen that each school agrees with the fundamental principle that the SBM should allow the headteacher and LMT to focus their energies on driving up standards in each classroom. They should be freed up to meet the challenges of increasing student outcomes, while the SBM is the essential conduit between the school and “an central trust or management group” in terms of, for instance, finance, humna resources, capital planning and IT provision.

Once the general election is over and clarity emerges about the future direction of education for all state schools, the role of the SBM will be brought into sharper focus. They need to have a skilled and deep approach to knowing their school’s budgets and to forecast effectively in-year. Many schools are supporting their budgets through “carry forwards” that will, eventually, taper to nothing.

Budgets are declining, especially in terms of vastly reduced capital funding for ageing buildings. There are more children needing to be educated and we seem to be trying to recruit from an ever-diminishing supply of trained teachers. The latest pre-election announcement from the prime minister makes it clear that we have to make every pound stretch further. SBMs will be essential in supporting headteachers through this.

How do we make graduates see that a career in school leadership as a non-teacher is plausible? We need to create a structure that gives a clear career path culminating in SBL – school business leadership – by an apprenticeship, a graduate programme or a return to work programme.

Simple things could make a difference. Micon Metcalfe, a leading SBM, said recently on twitter on New Year’s Day: “School workforce census doesn’t record non-teaching leaders as leadership.” A simple change here would go a long way towards recognising the role.

As David Weston of the Teacher Development Trust said in response: “a great school is a balanced orchestra, everyone contributes to the harmony and performance.” The sooner we accept this, the sooner we will start using the SMB role more effectively.