Despite the backdrop of continued political uncertainty and a government in relative paralysis, 2019 has been an exciting year for the School Business Leadership (SBL) profession, writes Stephen Morales

ISBL has long campaigned to give School Business Professionals (SBPs) a system leadership role, where their unique skills, qualifications and experiences are recognised and embraced by the sector. This year was a success in that regard with the launch of the School Resource Management Adviser (SRMA) initiative.

While there has been some controversy, so far there have been over 300 successful SRMA deployments. This is also a success for sector-led school improvement, offering schools access to the niche expertise of the SBL community, which could lead to something comparable to National Leaders of Education.

Along with ISBL Fellows like Director of Business Services at St Damian’s RC Science College, Angela Ogden – who won School Business Leader of the year at the inaugural National Schools Awards in November – the sector now has a pool of talented business leaders ready and able to help vulnerable schools and trusts improve their financial planning and secure their future sustainability.

ISBL has been at the vanguard of the concept of joined-up leadership where the pillars of business, governance and pedagogy work in an inclusive and integrated way. I spent much of 2019 visiting schools of every phase and type, and it has been incredibly encouraging to see that joined-up approach to school leadership taking root in so many schools.

At Alfreton Nursery School, which serves a deprived community in Derbyshire, I met Katie Cresswell, who works seamlessly with her headteacher and deputy head, creating a unique learning environment. Incredibly, this team has found time to learn and share practice beyond their own setting, conducting research in Scandinavia, working closely with the local teaching school and writing extensively on the work they’ve done. There is no doubt that they are important system leaders.

I also visited two urban schools serving diverse communities where knife crime and high levels of deprivation present huge challenges. Despite these challenges and a significant intake of SEND pupils, SBPs in these settings are doing inspirational work to transform the life chances of children.

We should not underestimate the role SBPs are playing

The continuing political uncertainty has made longer-term planning very difficult for SBPs and their SLT colleagues. A government in paralysis means very little change, and the SBL community is united in saying that change is needed in the underlying school financing arrangements. Conversely, the turbulence resulting from a new government and the anxiety of accelerated reform loom large.

Manifesto promises have set an expectation that more money will flow into the system and the hope that a cliff edge can now be avoided, but there remains scepticism about how promises will materialise.

As the year comes to an end, the prospect of some movement on funding arrangements and light at the end of the tunnel in terms of a hard formula are reasons to feel optimistic. We should not underestimate the role SBPs are playing in ongoing technical discussions in a number of policy areas.

This year, they have helped bring about progress on a more effective financial reporting and assurance regime, assisting officials with developments on improved automation, the removal of duplication, and the flow of information between schools and government agencies.

The idea that Ofsted may soon extend their remit to include a judgement on financial health has raised some eyebrows, and the concern amongst SBLs is the competency and ability of existing inspectors to have an informed opinion in technical areas for which they are not trained. Of course, this could present a new opportunity for SBPs themselves to perform a role alongside pedagogical HMIs.

Across the system, the impact of policy on school finances remains a mixed picture – local authorities have taken a hammering, and services once readily available to schools are no longer there. However, some trusts are benefiting from carefully considered reorganisation and enjoying significant improvements in the deployment and optimisation of resources, ultimately better serving a whole community of learners rather than isolated high-performing schools.

The next few days will determine the policy trajectory for the year ahead, and perhaps longer. School Business Leaders will do what they always do – roll their sleeves up and confront the challenges head on.