School Business Managers have an important role. This is increasingly important as school finances are stretched and Headteachers need extra support to manage their workload.
What do SBMs do and how can they help a school to achieve its goals?
Simon Roberts, Business and Finance Director at Olchfa School, Swansea was in conversation with Robin Hughes, Advisor at eTeach.
What was your career path to get to your current job?
I started as a Finance Officer in a faith school 18 years ago and quickly decided to upskill myself so that I would be better placed to take on a more senior business manager role. I studied for some school business management specific courses, put out my CV and was then invited to apply for a School Bursar role in a Private School in the Middle East. I was flown over, got the job and took my young family. I stayed a few years, got a lot of experience and then returned to settle the family back in South Wales. My first job back was in a converter Academy in Gloucester and then I got a School Business Manager role in a Local Authority maintained school in Swansea. After a few years there, I moved to where I am now.
You’ve been in a school business manager role under different job titles and in different types of school. What are your reflections about that?
It is an issue that there are so many different titles for what is often, fundamentally, the same job. School bursar, school business manager, finance director, resources manager. And yet a lot of what is done is the same when you look at what these people actually do.
When you’ve worked in all these contexts – private, academy, maintained schools – you realise that there is a lot that is the same. There are teachers, teaching assistants, admin colleagues. You are always looking to resource teaching and your curriculum, and maybe find ways to fund changes or improvements to your provision.
But there is a different context for the School Business Manager in an academy or a maintained or a private school?
The biggest differences I noticed was the culture in each type of environment and also how you might go about your job. Your aims and vision, or your strategic goals, are similar, but the means by which you get there may be different because of your context. For instance, there are protocols and ways of doing things if you are an LA maintained school that just aren’t relevant or don’t exist if you are an Academy or an independent school. Procurement, for example.
It can sometimes be frustrating when you work in a fairly rigid system where there are many protocols, and capacity issues narrow your opportunity to be innovative. IT is a good example. You must work with the capacity of the system you have, and that may be dictated to you by the wider national, regional or local procurement arrangements that you are required to be part of. And that means sometimes you just can’t introduce the IT you’d like and that has a knock-on effect on the curriculum you can provide.
Currently, school leaders generally are saying that budgets are challenging. What does this mean for a school business manager?
In one important way, the school business manager’s main job stays the same, whatever the school’s budget. You look creatively at what you do, take account of the context you are working in, and you look for what can be done better, and what can be more efficient but still be at least just as effective or, even better, more effective. You’re always looking for ways to use the money better and achieve what the school is setting out to do. Austerity and constant pressure on staff means that efficiency and effectiveness are more important than ever before. School business management is a continuous cycle of ensuring that all areas underpin each other successfully, allowing the school as a whole to operate efficiently.
But challenging times in terms of funding must mean challenging times for school business managers?
If you look at the same set of numbers for too long, you can become convinced that there’s nothing new to be done to change them. Getting in a fresh pair of eyes can help unlock a situation and that can lead to new ideas that can improve matters.
If you are faced with a stagnant or declining income stream, you have to consider ways in which you can improve that. Apart from increasing pupil numbers, you might consider how your school estate can generate income. Lettings, can provide opportunities. You must also be sure that your pay structure is fair, well-managed and has a strategic purpose. Looking at TLRs or pupil/teacher ratios, for instance, could provide some efficiencies, as well as considering curriculum-led financial planning initiatives. Generating, saving or mis-managing even as little as 1 or ½ % can make a difference, and that difference accumulates over time.
A school business manager might have tough conversations. When budgets are tight or when the needs of the school are changing – or have changed – it is possible that you are faced with making tough choices. Tough choices usually lead to tough conversations. My experience in the private sector meant that I was away from home and actually living on a compound with many of the colleagues that I might have tough conversations with. Going through the experience does help put things in perspective and prepare you as you progress in your career.
A typical average sized secondary school in Wales will have 1,200 pupils, £5million turnover, 70 teaching staff and 120 adults employed in total. Maybe 80-90% of the budget is allocated to staffing costs, which follows nationally agreed pay deals. The opportunities for strategic business management appear to be small. What do you think about that?
The opportunity may appear small at first glance but take a closer look – with the right skills and a willingness to be creative. It usually reveals a different story.
A few years ago, I was business manager at a school and the catering being provided by the local authority was very poor. Our FSM pupils and others weren’t taking their lunch. I visited schools that had taken their catering in-house, away from their local authority. The service to their pupils was far better. Very few were leaving the school grounds to go get something else from the corner shop and that meant high uptake from pupils and a profit was being generated. That profit was being reinvested in the school. I took the proposal to Governors. I showed them figures. I also showed them a picture of what was being served at lunchtime - what was being served to those pupils in other schools and what was being served to ours. One looked good, the other didn’t. Both were being charged at the same price. Governors approved the proposal.
The interesting thing was, when we advertised for a catering manager, the applicants were incredible. Experienced people, including chefs from top restaurants. These people could see the benefit of working in a school, the term times, no weekend working and so on.
Kids were then eating a hot, nutritious meal, they weren’t jumping over the fence at lunchtime, they were in school and ready to learn in the afternoon. Attendance and behaviour improved. And the income stream came good, as expected, in year three after the transition happened and the start-up costs that came with that were taken into account. Lots of benefits, and not just in finance.
I had already taken other services in-house, such as cleaning, music peripatetic and ground maintenance, which was where savings could be made, whilst improving the quality of provision.
Your journey has taken in a range of schools with different contexts and your career progression has been from a functional role to taking on more strategic responsibility. What has helped you do that?
Upskilling yourself and investing in your own professional development in specific aspects of school business management can be very important if you are moving into strategic financial management from, say, having had a more functional or administrative role – especially if that role has been in the same school for several years.
Early in my career, I was lucky enough to have a Headteacher as a crucial ally, who agreed that there would be a benefit in me taking a course to upskill myself. Some who were already SBMs were doing it, but not many who, like me, were aspiring to the role. My course fees were paid for by the school. As we look at developments now with reforms, diversification, funding pressures and increased workload in many areas of education underway, it would be great to see the growing recognition of the value of SBM role being backed up with professional development and have that development resourced in some way. That knowledge and the skill could be invaluable to supporting effective practice in schools by making that practice efficient as well as effective.
Upskilling is one thing. What about networking with peers?
Networking can help you get a fresh perspective on matters. You may have been staring at the detail of these matters for a long time and become a bit stale in your thinking about them.
Institute of School Business Leaders (ISBL) are always a great source of support. I regularly attend ISBL National Conferences and find them to always be of real benefit. However, out of approx. 400 delegates in the most recent one in Birmingham, there were only two SBMs from Wales in attendance I think, including me. That surprised me, as there are many more ISBL members than that. There’s a Welsh regional event soon and it will be interesting to see how many attend, as it could be an indication of the perception of the importance of the role in Wales currently.
#SBLTwitter – is becoming a really good place to network, where SBMs share ideas and best practice, as well as just reassuring each other some times that we are all battling the same problems.
Any final thoughts?
If you are new to the job or are starting the job in a new school, it is a good idea to take your time to look at the numbers and the school structure, and establish an understanding of the people around you. Don’t over-promise and under-deliver! Change can take time.
Are you looking for a change? Search our available jobs in finance here.
About the author
Robin has been a school governor for over ten years and is bilingual, Welsh and English. Before becoming a consultant and working with a number of private and public sector educational organisations, Robin had stakeholder management roles in an examination board and was the Wales Secretary for ASCL, a body that represents over 16,000 senior school leaders.