School business managers are more than a finance manager or an admin officer. But exactly what their role is should be clarified as schools take on more responsibility

The emphasis on performance and standards in the education sector is exacting; financial pressures are significant. In the future, both will continue to rise and accountability will intensify. Everyone needs to deliver the best that they can with the resources available.

At a recent school business managers’ meeting, the speakers discussed how schools could effectively meet this challenge. All spoke of a “holy trinity” of headteacher, governing body and school business manager (SBM).

These three elements drive outstanding, effective leadership and deliver the best outcomes for pupils.

No one questions the role of a headteacher, and in the past few years, the spotlight has trained on effective governance and its role. But the role of the SBM still needs its moment in the limelight.

What is effective school business management? Historically, it didn’t really exist, as local authorities dealt with most necessary paperwork, such as budgets and personnel. As schools received more administrative freedom and responsibility, they typically took on part-time office staff to manage personnel, premises and, most importantly, the budget. These people had a number of job titles including bursar, finance assistant or office manager.

SBMs should be involved in strategic decisions, even where they might be about teaching

As pressures and accountabilities grew, so too did the areas in which these people were employed. They began playing key roles in recruitment, were often clerks to governors, had more financial input, had safeguarding responsibilities and looked after premise projects, such as new buildings.

To recognise this, many schools recruited SBM. Few changed the job role that went with the title, though, and many are still not considered to be part of the senior leadership team. This is a misrepresentation of the SBM role. Being an SBM is not the same as being a finance manager or an admin officer. Though these historic roles are part of the job, it is more complex and strategic. SBMs are not “admin support” – they offer significant, targeted and valuable leadership to a school.

The SBM role needs clarification to recognise this change, especially its increased level of accountability. SBMs should be involved in many more strategic decisions, even where they might seem to be about teaching. For example, highlighted weaknesses in teaching will have an impact on personnel and performance-related pay. If a teacher is running a project – why not ask the SBM if there are additional sources of funding available to support it?

Ultimately, the SBM is a specialist form of leader. It is a waste of time to deploy the skills of a headteacher in the non-teaching elements of leadership when someone with greater business knowledge would make quicker, more effective, strategic decisions that will still fulfil the vision set by the head and governors.

Many SBMs are doing amazing jobs and usually working more hours than they are paid for. They may or may not be on the leadership team but even if they are, few are paid a leadership wage. Many are on part-time contracts, term time only, yet are expected to be “on call” for building works over the summer and able to intervene if there is a premises disaster. This must change, especially if the “holy trinity” of school leadership is to happen.

But there are also too many business managers who have merely adopted the title with little understanding of what is involved. They (and often their head and governors) have no idea what SBMs should be offering. They do the things that they have always done because that’s how it has always been done. They take no responsibility for their career development or the strategic direction of the school.

SBMs in this guise are neither effective nor fit for purpose in the new education landscape. Accountability measures so prominent in the rest of the sector must be brought to bear in this crucial role to ensure that schools are dynamically managed and capable of surpassing the stretching demands and targets asked of them.

 

Sarah Jones is a school business manager. She has worked in the education sector for ten years, and has completed both CSBM and DSBM

Follow sarah on twitter @SJJones2014