I spent much of this year visiting school business management (SBM) professionals across the country; from rural locations in Cornwall, Northumbria and Cumbria to conurbations in London, Birmingham and Manchester. There are some common challenges but each region has its own peculiarities. Differences include geography, culture, urban density, scarcity, economic performance, demographics and the political landscape. This diversity is fascinating and makes the UK an exciting place to live and work. However, we must not lose sight of contextual consideration when measuring achievements this year.
Surveys conducted this year by school leadership unions suggest an unacceptable disparity in SBM pay across the country. Notwithstanding small variations for London workers or areas of extreme scarcity, this needs to be addressed. Work carried out by an SBM in Newcastle is no less valuable than that performed by one in London. The absence of a clear pay framework underpinned by professional standards allows school employers and local authorities an unreasonable degree of latitude when it comes to SBM pay.
The value of SBMs has not been in question. The coalition’s commitment earlier this year to funding a grant to support primary school clusters gain access to an effective SBM demonstrates the Department for Education’s (DfE) recognition that appropriately skilled and qualified professionals are needed to ensure school efficiency.
Work carried out by an SBM in Newcastle is no less valuable than that performed by one in London
It was perhaps disappointing, therefore, that the DfE decided to withdraw funding to the National College for the SBM qualifications programme. However, this is consistent with a government moved to encourage the school sector to take responsibility for its own professional development in both teaching and school operations.
This move for greater responsibility represents a unique opportunity for SBMs to lead and shape their own professional development. In full consultation with practitioners, NASBM will be developing a framework of professional standards that will underpin future CPD, provide a clear reference point for employers and a transparent framework for performance management. It should help us shine a spotlight on the scope of the SBM role. It has cross-party support and there is a commitment to the consultation by all of the unions.
That said, we need to prepare for what is coming down the line. Increased autonomy, but also increased direct accountability; significant reductions in real-terms funding; more scrutiny on governance. How might schools address these challenges? Perhaps through income generation, effective collaboration, staff optimisation, curriculum planning, removing duplication and providing appropriate challenge.
NASBM has also called for operational effectiveness to be one of the Ofsted measures. There are few, if any, schools that have achieved outstanding status without demonstrating operational efficiency and effectiveness.
Whilst this is not currently an area that Ofsted covers in its inspection regime, there is plenty of evidence to suggest a link between high-performing schools and the effectiveness of their back office operations. The strategic deployment of resources, estate planning, space optimisation and sustainable financial plans linked to the school development plan [or equivalent] is central to any school’s success.
This is not the sole responsibility of the headteacher, governing body, or school business manager. It is a triangulated approach to leadership involving all three groups and leveraging off their respective expertise that will see the best results.
As the fiscal pressure on schools increases this measure will become more important to ensure that austerity measures do not lead to a drop in teaching and learning standards.
To be clear, there are schools with a strong track record of back office efficiency yet despite this they have, for whatever reason, struggle to achieve a good or above Ofsted rating. However, high-performing schools appear to have as part of their DNA well established back office operations. It is therefore hard to ignore this link.
The new year will provide a unique opportunity for SBM professionals to step up and show what an incredible impact they can have on school operations and ultimately the effectiveness of teaching and learning. Let’s grab it with both hands.
Stephen Morales is Executive Director of the National Association of School Business Management