Challenges weigh on undervalued school business leaders

19 Oct 2019, 5:12

Survey results show a bleak and unsustainable situation for the school business leadership community. Hilary Goldsmith calls for action in the face of impending crisis

At the start of September, 324 respondents completed my survey of school business leadership (SBL) salaries across the UK. I asked a number of questions about how SBLs are regarded in their schools and trusts, about their professional standing as senior leaders and the pay they receive compared with other senior leaders. The results were bleak, if not surprising.

SBLs or school business managers (SBMs) or chief financial officers (CFOs) or chief operating officers (COOs). Whatever you call them, they have taken a beating – and they were dreading the start of the academic year.

It’s no wonder. They have had to cope with the impact of debilitating funding cuts, a teacher recruitment crisis, increasing supply costs, GDPR, the loss of key support staff following restructuring and increasing external hoop-jumping. None of which seem to be going away.

Fourteen per cent are not even part of their senior leadership teams, despite having responsibility for all financial and operation matters. More markedly, 39 per cent of primary SBLs are not invited to SLT meetings or considered to be senior leaders, and 37 per cent of SBLs do not attend all governing body or trust meetings.

That means that one in three schools may not have a school business expert present for the delivery of financial information to trustees and governors, or to respond to financial challenge.

With an increasing focus on resource management, accountability and integrated curriculum and financial planning (ICFP), I find it unthinkable that a school would employ a finance and business specialist and not include that professional in strategic and financial planning.

I cannot think of a single reason why a headteacher, trust executive, trustee or governor would not want their SBL at meetings where strategic and financial decisions are considered.

We are facing a drain of expertise in business acumen

The survey also looked at remuneration and contractual conditions, and found that up to 40 per cent of SBLs are on term-time only contracts and so do not get paid school holiday periods.

Not only is this inequitable, it means that SBLs are not at work when major building projects and infrastructure works are taking place, and when intense work is required for the start and end of the school financial year. That doesn’t make any sense.

The educational landscape has changed significantly; we need to reconsider terms and conditions that date back to the workforce reform era and revalue the worth of the school business leader.

Pay needs looking at too. While more than 60 per cent need their job description updated, 20 per cent have never had a salary review.

Many headteachers speak of how much they value their SBL for their expertise, but it seems that many are not paying them an equivalent salary.

The average salary for SBLs is £38,988 (FTE £41,927), the same salary of a UPS 2 teacher with no TLR.  To recruit and retain the best and to reflect the importance of this critical role, I believe they should paid at a rate equivalent to an assistant or deputy head, with adjustment for varying levels of responsibility.

The evidence of the survey bears out the need for change. Perhaps the most concerning and starkest statistic is that 61 per cent of SBLs feel they are underpaid and undervalued. The cumulative effect is an unsustainable situation.

We need a national conversation. National leaders of education (NLEs), as school and system leaders, must take a positive step to encourage open discussion on equitable SBL pay. Heads must ensure that they re-evaluate the salary, wellbeing and workload of their SBL this term. Trade unions and professional bodies must engage in this debate and monitor that SBL salaries are reviewed fairly, equitably and in line with other members of the SLT.

Action is needed now. Facing a drain of expertise in business acumen at a time of unprecedented financial challenges has potentially crippling consequences.

You can view the results of the survey here: www.sbl365.co.uk/salarysurvey

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