What do we mean when we talk about school business professionals?

Posted  26th May 2021
Posted by  SBL Day Partner

Partner Blog from Stephen Morales

There are so many titles used to describe the school business professional (SBP). The title ‘business manager’ is no longer as fashionable as it was during the heyday of the National College, and whilst some practitioners have clung on to that way of describing their role, many are now using different language depending on whether the role is generalist or more specialised.

We now see SBPs referred to as resource directors, assistant principals, CFOs, COOs, finance directors or directors of finance. Note the use of the word ‘director’ being more commonplace, perhaps in an attempt to create more parity with other leadership team colleagues.

But what’s in a name? I can point to an SBP who continues to refer to themselves as a school business manager yet has the oversight of numerous schools and enjoys a very generous salary, arguably in line with that of other multi-academy trust leaders. Equally, I can point to the COO of small primary trust overseeing a very modest budget and still struggling to negotiate a salary that matches the job title or gets anywhere close to other leadership team colleagues.

I am not sure that the job title tells us very much, and until the sector is ready to coalesce around a framework that maps job titles to qualifications, levels of accountability, experience and the scale of the operations, it is going to remain difficult to make sense of our diverse workforce. Indeed, if we could address the above, the conversations around pay would be so much easier. Putting job titles to one side, let’s go back to the original question of what we mean when we talk about the role of an SBP.

Putting job titles to one side, let’s go back to the original question of what we mean when we talk about the role of an SBP.

Let’s start by addressing the elephant in the room. Does an acceleration of the academy programme (we can try and interpret what the Secretary of State announced last week as something else; however, I think it’s pretty clear) mean there will be a rationalisation and recalibration of SBP roles? I think there is an inevitability about that. Does it therefore mean there will be fewer SBPs across our system? I think not.

Trusts need all three flavours of school business leadership. Yes, they need to appoint a chief finance officer (it’s a requirement of the Academies Financial Handbook), but they also need the skills of a senior operations generalist (often referred to as a COO), someone with strong HR knowledge, someone who understands premises and infrastructure, someone to lead on procurement, and so on. At a local level, head teachers need operational and administrative support, and whilst of course some functions can be easily centralised, some cannot. Life in a multi-academy trust will feel different, though, with multiple management layers, a range of governance structures and new accountability lines.

But we don’t need to panic just yet. It has taken 11 years to move fewer than half our schools into trust structures; to move another 10,000 schools will take years, but we should start to prepare ourselves.

On that basis, in the short to medium term, we will see SBPs performing their roles in standalone settings, either in maintained schools or single-academy trusts. Some will be using their deep technical knowledge to discharge their responsibilities, whilst others will have a broader, more generalist set of skills and experience. Some are better at ‘mucking in’ and providing pastoral support to their leadership colleagues; others will be more comfortable operating more invisibly.

During the period of the pandemic, I was privileged to listen to first-hand accounts from practitioners who were out in the community helping to ensure children were being fed. I know of one SBP who used their knowledge of IT and systems to create a virtual staffroom. I listened to another practitioner talk to me about how they had taken on the role of counsellor for those members of staff who were finding the impact of the pandemic overwhelming.

And whilst we have made a lot of the resilience of well-established trusts with large central teams, we have perhaps focused too heavily on structures and not enough on people.

It’s people, their courage, compassion and resilience that have enabled us to weather the storm presented by the pandemic – not structures and systems.

So, as we look to the future, the education sector needs to think carefully about how we protect, develop and nurture our most precious resource: people.

We have circa 11,000 SBPs working across our system in different phases, different school types and different contexts. They will have different titles, come from different backgrounds and have different qualifications. What they all have in common is a sense of purpose and a determination to do the best for their communities, often in quite different ways. Let’s celebrate the diversity that exists within our professional community and provide them with the support and ongoing professional development that will equip them for any future change.

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