Micon Metcalfe’s rise was never a given. Jess Staufenberg meets the school secretary turned government adviser

Micon Metcalfe, one of the best-known figures in school finance, seems to have got there almost by accident. She wanted to be a school secretary.  With an O-level in maths and a history degree, she wasn’t a chartered accountant and hadn’t worked in schools. It was 1997 and she needed a job that gave her holidays with her young daughter. Her husband was a teacher in London, so it made sense.

But Metcalfe, who is now a fellow of the Institute of School Business Leadership (ISBL), a government school resource management adviser (SRMA), and a regular adviser to the Education and Skills Funding Agency, couldn’t get work in schools for “a long time”.

“I came up with this idea I’d be a school secretary, but I was going for jobs and they kept saying ‘you’ve got no experience in schools’.” Eventually she landed an admin job at a one-form entry primary school in south London. She was 33.

Her meteoric rise since serves as a lesson in the (often overlooked) potential of back office staff. She’s been headhunted by Sir Jon Coles at United Learning, the biggest academy chain in the country, and now Dame Rachel de Souza at Inspiration Trust in Norfolk, where she was appointed chief operating officer in September. I find her in the trust’s large, airy boardroom above the old fire station in Norwich, which the trust converted in 2013 into the Sir Isaac Newton Sixth Form. There is a long board table with about 15 chairs, and she perches happily on one of them.

Finance directors need to be included in all decisions

It is clear as we talk it could have all turned out rather differently. When Metcalfe, with her twin sister, went to a state comprehensive in Leicester, it caused her parents “some consternation”. Both were from working-class backgrounds, had got into grammar schools, and her father became a lecturer in education. Both were anxious for their children to succeed. But her father died when Metcalfe was 13. “He was ill for about a year. When you’re that age, it’s hard.” Her mother retrained as a computer programmer and moved the family to Somerset.

The disruption meant Metcalfe managed to get a few O-levels. Things didn’t much improve at college. “I don’t think anyone checked I was attending. We were also taught the wrong syllabus for one subject and got completely different questions in the exam!” Most of the class failed, but Metcalfe, who had been predicted an A, managed a C. She’d scraped into university. “It’s unthinkable now, isn’t it? I guess that’s why I’m so committed to education . . . because I know some children got really raw deals.”

She says “it wasn’t really by design” that she worked her way up the school finance career ladder. “It was the times.” As an historian, she points to the 1988 Education Reform Act, which introduced local management of schools and grant-maintained schools (the forerunner of today’s academies, responsible for their own finances). “Schools had a lot more autonomy and heads were starting to do financial planning,” she says. “I did a lot of spreadsheet work — and I enjoyed it.”

New Labour even had an initiative called the “entrepreneurial school”, which sparked her interest in generating extra income. But she was also “motivated”.

“If you’re doing back office work, you’ve got to make it interesting. You poke your nose into things.” She became a governor at her daughter’s school and got the level 4 diploma for school business managers. She soon moved to a bigger primary, before moving to Dunraven School, also in south London, where she stayed for a decade, building a reputation as a knowledgeable director of finance.

“You know how they say men apply up? This job was my one time of applying up. It was a massive stretch, from a two-form primary to an eight-form secondary. I thought, ‘oh my gosh, what if I can’t do this?’” Metcalfe, who weighs all her responses, replies with uncharacteristic intensity when I ask how she found it. “I really did enjoy it.” Under her watch, the school underwent a £22 million refurbishment through the now-scrapped Building Schools for the Future programme. “Those were great times, when you’d go and put your hard hat on and look at what you’re helping with.”

I did a lot of spreadsheet work — and I enjoyed it

More mysterious is a four-month stint as head of growth at United Learning soon after. By this point Metcalfe had a level 7 certificate in school finance and operational leadership, but it was still a huge step. “It’s a great organisation, but it was the wrong job. I hope we parted on good terms. Having thought I’d had enough of finance and spreadsheets, I really hadn’t. I got it wrong. I should have stuck it for longer.” She looks rueful. Meanwhile she is enthusiastic about Inspiration Trust. She spends three days in Norfolk each week and says she is still getting to grips with it.

Such broad experience in the sector, at a time when the government has laid pressure on schools to cut costs, has made Metcalfe sought after. Half of academy trusts had an in-year deficit last year, according to this year’s Kreston Academies Benchmark report. And Metcalfe, although she weighs her words carefully, does not mix them.

Writing for Schools Week, she has warned: “If the government says, ‘this is the funding you’re going to get’, you have to cut your cloth accordingly.” She’s also defended the government’s SRMAs, whom she joined in 2018, as a “great deal for schools”, challenging the sector on its “unwillingness to engage” with finance.

So what’s it like being an SRMA? To get the role, she had to examine a real-life case study of a school in financial difficulty and “turn around recommendations in 24 hours” ahead of a face-to-face interview. “Now I tend to choose deployments that are interesting to me. They’ve all been different: one was about falling pupil rolls, another was a trust entirely of free schools. I would hope they all found the visit positive.”

It’s difficult to imagine she wouldn’t be helpful. But she admits a red flag flutters if staff salaries cost more than 80 per cent of income – she’d keep it between 75 and 80.

I ask why SRMAs are needed. Surely it shows too many school business managers aren’t good at their jobs? “I’m not sure there are enough people with these skills, no. The workload can also be as heavy as for a chief executive, so it’s about making it doable, too.

“But also if you challenge the CEO and chair too much, you can lose your job. The CEO and chair can be a powerful partnership. Finance directors need to be included in what I call “the C-suite” — they need to be where all decisions are made, not just financial decisions. So it’s about having the skills, but also the mechanisms in place so they can do their jobs. I don’t know how much boards are taking that on.”

The lack of such expertise is clearly impacting school leaders. De Souza, who met me when I arrived, whispered delightedly: “I’ve been trying to get her for years.” It shows trust bosses keenly feel the paucity of people as good as Metcalfe.

When I ask Metcalfe where the future supply chain of business managers lies, she takes me back to her roots. “It’s mostly women in administrative roles. We need to signpost this as a career.

So, pay attention to your school secretaries. Another Metcalfe might be among them —and we need them!