The pace of change has made it a tough year for schools, academies and their business managers. But it is also the year that school business management came of age

Policy changes in the wake of the general election, cost pressures from increased national insurance and pension costs, and the fragmented landscape of academy, maintained, multi-academy and other school structures added to the difficulty of running balanced budgets and legally compliant buildings.

Such is the pace of change that some have likened education to the Wild West or a fast-changing battlefield. Where there were once “wars and rumours of wars”, there is now “education policy and rumours of education policy”; especially around academisation. School business managers have spent much of the year trying to establish if being, or converting to, a standalone academy would see their school left alone or if forcible multi-academy amalgamation might be on the cards.

Academisation quickened after the election in May. The continued policy of making condition improvement fund money available only to academies means that not only are local authorities crumbling away, their school buildings are too.

The election result also meant that all of us with an eye on pupil numbers and budgets have kept watch on moves to expand grammar schools. Forgive us if we remain nervous about the prospect of more “annexes”, but further top-slicing of our most talented pupils is likely to have an impact on the bottom line, as well as teacher recruitment and retention.

The prospect of more “annexes” makes us nervous

But even if we had filled our vacancies, we were not home and dry yet. Disqualification by association meant a number of school staff were sent home indefinitely because of who they shared a house with, waiting for clear guidance on when, and on the basis of what risk assessment, they could return.

Pupil premium awards deployed resources in support of disadvantaged pupils. But these paled into insignificance in the face of the clamour from MPs and school leaders’ unions for the elusive holy grail of “fair funding”. The difference in mood at school business manager meetings between the potential winners and losers is palpable in the run-up
to Christmas.

One thing is certain: the rise in pension contributions from September, a hike in national insurance payments and flat cash in the coming years, will stretch school finances. Many are already feeling the pinch, with an increasing number getting into significant deficit during the year. A number also made headlines for the not so voluntary nature of their voluntary donation schemes. The battle lines have been drawn for a fight over funding in 2016, with the Department for Education (DfE) insisting schools can be more efficient and schools asserting that, with 80 per cent of their spend going on staffing, the curriculum is at risk if staffing is cut.

The DfE’s preferred “efficient” structure for high quality education, the multi-academy trust, has been consistently championed throughout the year. However, the ideal size was redefined between June, when Frank Green, the national schools commissioner said about seven to ten schools, then in November told the National Association of Schools Business Managers’ (NASBM) national conference it was about 15 to 20.

The importance of multi-academy solutions being the preferred delivery model was further reinforced with the rumours reaching NASBM and the headteacher associations of standalone academy conversions being rejected. Wars and rumours of wars once more.

Still, the frenetic pace of 2015 made it a good year for school business managers. They have risen to its challenges and sought to support a world-class education for pupils whilst keeping spending within available means. They have helped more schools move to academy status without disrupting education and have come together to secure formal recognition for their roles, culminating in the publication of national professional standards in November and the launch of the National School Business Management Qualifications Board under the stewardship
of NASBM.

In many ways 2015 was the year school business management came of age.