The year in school business: When crisis came, we ran towards it

20 Dec 2020, 5:00

From staff rotas to test and trace, school business leaders have shown how vital their contributions are, says Micon Metcalfe

It seems like it must have been a different decade or another life altogether, but 2020 started with a new prime minister. There were big promises on education. Teachers were to be backed on discipline and paid more, but the ones that caught the eye of the school business professionals were £14 billion in additional funding (or £7 billion in new pledges, depending on how you look at it) – including more for special needs, plus one-off additional capital funding. Per-pupil funding would be boosted to at least £5,000 for secondary and £4,000 for primary schools. Although we knew that there would still be a lot for the government to do around Brexit, there was some hope that there would be a renewed focus on schools and education.

The SBL community was going from strength to strength and professional networks were forming at local and national level as we realised that our profession needed access to peer support as well as the professional framework and training provided by the Institute of School Business Leadership.

As the UK left the EU on January 31, 2020, SBLs were turning their thoughts to the HR issues that would emerge as a result. There would be more red tape for hiring teachers from the EU, and EU employees were seeking reassurance about the paperwork they would need. But there were other storm clouds forming. We had seen reports of the novel coronavirus in Wuhan, China, and by February a large part of northern Italy was under lockdown, with overwhelmed hospitals. Schools there closed and would remain so for many months.

In the business of school life this seemed like something that happened to other people in other places. In fact, the virus had started to spread in the UK in a way that was to have profound consequences for the rest of the year.

As we came into March, business leaders were trying to make sense of their disaster recovery plans

As schools returned from the February half-term, SBLs were faced with increasing levels of staff and pupil absence and we updated policies to meet the new rules around isolation. As we came into March, many business leaders were trying to make sense of their disaster recovery plans and were at the forefront of discussions around contingency plans, should schools close. By the second week of March, it was only a matter of when, not if, schools would close, although I don’t suppose any of us imagined what we would be up against.

Once schools did close, the profession slipped in to a new normal of staff rotas, working from home, supporting staff, manning phone lines to follow up on pupils, organising food for vulnerable families and working with the wider leadership team to keep everyone up to date.

We became procurement and contract experts overnight, grappling with the Procurement Policy Note 02/20, which sought to keep our suppliers afloat during the crisis. We certainly wanted our supply chain still there when we did get back and we also had to renegotiate services to meet the new normal.

It dawned on me in April that re-opening would be more challenging than closing and so it proved to be. SBPs spent the summer overseeing the installation of outside sinks and new ways of working. Budgets were re-worked to take account of bubbles and cleaning, and staff were reassured with risk assessments and new policies. Since September school-based practitioners have been at the vanguard of test-and-trace as the year continues in a stop-start fashion.

The online community of business leaders flourished, sharing practical advice and solving challenges. There were online tea breaks which provided space to sound off and kick back a little. No one could say the SBL community flinched when it was asked to step up and be part of the solution. Instead we ran towards the fire. Not only does this make me incredibly proud, but it gives me great hope.

A vaccine offers the hope of a return to normality for schools in 2021 and all that entails. As SBLs, I know we’ve got this!

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