School business leaders are on the front line

It’s foolish not to include business managers in all aspects of school planning, argues Paul Whiteman

Like many of our school business leader members, I take exception to school business leadership being described as a ‘back office’ function. It’s irritating and misleading in so many ways.

SBLs aren’t typically getting their hands dirty in the classroom but if anything, with school budgets at breaking point, the spreadsheets they control represent education’s current battlefield. The conversations they have with the rest of the school’s senior leadership team and the decisions they make are right at the front line.

The growing importance of school business leadership is reflected in the growing number of NAHT’s SBL members. Of course, membership also comes with protection, and SBLs need and deserve the same protection that any other school leader or NAHT member is entitled to. They also deserve the same status and respect.

Without effective school business leadership we just can’t deliver our education system. Careful management and constant review of how we deploy our resources – funding, people, buildings and equipment – is essential. These considerations have to be central to planning, including curriculum planning and timetabling and that‘s why I’m surprised when some of our SBL members tell me that they’re not involved in leadership meetings to discuss these important issues.

I’d recommend that every school includes its SBL on the senior leadership team. And pays them accordingly. They are fundamental to a school’s success.

The spreadsheets they control represent education’s current battlefield

The perception of SBLs as a ‘back office’ function evokes a calm and tranquil environment far from the hustle and bustle of the school and the manic pressure of the typical working day that our members describe. And it ignores the extent to which the current crisis in school funding and teacher recruitment have impacted on SBL roles.

SBLs are at the sharp end of the funding and recruitment crises.

Whether it’s struggling to find budget savings that will have the least impact on the quality of education delivered; ensuring they secure the very best deals in procuring for the school; being as creative as possible to ensure they can fill all teaching roles or ensuring that existing teachers are developed and retained; or keeping a building fit for purpose when essential repairs have had to be delayed a further year, school business leaders are driving change within the school system.

Some may feel that all they can do is make the best of a dire situation. Many have told us of the sleepless nights that they suffer. All have the best interests of children and young people at heart, no matter the pressure.

And make no mistake, the pressure is immense and the work is often solitary – teaching leaders have each other to sound out, whilst the SBL is generally a lone, and sometimes isolated, voice. They’re often the ones pointing out the cost of the exciting new idea, or why it might present a safeguarding risk, or why the school’s not insured for it.

For several years, we have been proud partners with NASBM, the professional association for school business leaders.

We have worked jointly to influence government policy, to improve representation for SBLs and to protect them when they need professional support and advice.

Our joint working means that we have the best, most rounded understanding of the issues that government need to address: professional recognition and pay of SBLs; the teacher recruitment crisis; school funding and the fact that we can’t keep making cuts and savings.

This work will continue for the remainder of this year and beyond, and we anticipate stronger and stronger connections between our two organisations as time goes on.

Successful schools will have business leaders at the front of their thinking, planning and operations.

It’s important that as a group, SBLs also know that someone’s got their back.

Paul Whiteman is general secretary of the National Association of Head Teachers

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