The school business manager’s role goes beyond simply managing finances, says Hilary Morrison

Long gone are the days of the ‘school secretary’. School business managers (SBMs) can now look to a structured continuous professional development path, with our objectives being to help raise standards in teaching and learning and support leadership and governance in school improvement planning.

My vision of the SBM’s role is holistic. It is a role that should impact on the whole school community. Within any school system every child has a right to receive their full educational entitlement. The school business manager’s objective, therefore, should be to achieve maximum benefit for each child as they address each aspect of their multi-faceted role. The role of the SBM is wide and complex so I have selected seven main areas to demonstrate the impact on raising standards.

1. Understanding strategy

‘Strategy’ is attached to many planning terms – it can state an organisation’s position, perspective and shared views. There is no one definition to suit all organisations and it is used in many ways. It should, however, give leaders a structure to initiate the school’s organisational plans, both in the short term but more importantly for the future and continuity of the business. Even some of the major companies get their strategic vision wrong, causing some catastrophic consequences. Lessons should be learned, and practices adapted to ensure the risk to business continuity is limited. Business managers need to understand strategy in detail if they are to contribute fully to the success of the school.

2. A strategic role

The cycle of school improvement begins with the school’s mission statement, and this will be more meaningful and embraced by all stakeholders if everyone is involved in its design. Collective discussion and agreement can produce a simple statement stemming from the core questions:

  • What is our business?
  • What are we about?
  • What is quality in education?
  • Who are our customers?
  • How can we provide excellence and improvement?

The SBM should support the school’s vision and aims through many areas of school life but in particular through addressing the work-life balance issues that all leaders face today. The main focus is to support governors and headteachers with the many changes that have been implemented in the past two years. The SBM should take many operational responsibilities away from the leadership team and give support where necessary to policy and strategy. The SBM should undertake all aspects of:

  • Strategic analysis – to provide information about the school and its environment and to consider the school’s medium and long-term position.
  • Strategic choices – developing a number of possible courses of action which may lead towards the vision the school has for itself, and from which a choice may be made. This includes an assessment of risks that might deflect from achievement of the proposed choice.
  • Strategic implementation – detailing operational plans of activity leading towards successful completion of the chosen course of action and its evaluation.

The impact of this strategy gives the leadership team time to focus on leading teaching and learning, monitor student progress and implement student and staff development strategies, therefore raising standards.

3. Strategic financial planning

This is the core function of the SBM whose role is to ensure that the governors and leadership team have a sound strategic financial plan to meet the needs of the school’s improvement plan. With the introduction of two- and three-year budgets a longer-term strategic plan can be developed. The SBM should have the knowledge and management skills to ensure excellent procurement provision and the ability to deliver quality resources and staffing to the classroom. The SBM should have the time to source quality goods and services for the leadership team and teaching staff and ensure that all purchases are based on the school’s Best Value statement.

The principles of Best Value are:

  • Challenge – Why and how is a service provided? Do we still need it? Can it be delivered differently? What do students and parents want?
  • Compare – How does the school’s student performance and financial performance compare with other schools?
  • Consult – How does the school seek the views of appropriate stakeholders about the services the school provides, before decisions are made?
  • Compete – To ensure that the school promotes fair competition through quotations and tenders to ensure that goods and services are secured in the most economic, efficient and effective way.

These principles will ensure that all procurements are:

  • Economic – within the restraints of the budget plans.
  • Efficient – fit for the purpose they were provided.
  • Effective – they meet the required outcomes.

The SBM should assist budget holders to target the needs of the curriculum and provide regular financial reports. This will reduce some of the bureaucratic burden for teaching staff and offer them quality support; this will have a direct impact on raising standards in the classroom. The SBM should use expertise in financial management to review whole school spending by benchmarking data locally and nationally and reporting variance from the norm. This will ensure best value and redirect finances to key improvement issues, indirectly impacting on raising standards. The SBM can act as adviser to the governing body with regards to revenue, investment, financial regulations, asset management, lettings, governance and best audit practice and ensure that they will have the evidence base to meet the new financial standard requirements. This financial process mapping will link across all operational aspects of school life looking at risk and health and safety issues to ensure sustainability for the future. All of these areas of school life will impact on the quality provision for the children and staff and indirectly on raising standards.

4. Reducing bureaucracy

With approximately 80 per cent of a school’s budget spent on personnel, the SBM can explore alternatives and generate options for change, removing unnecessary tasks and bureaucracy and the administrative burden on staff.

The SBM can bring a different dimension to the leadership team, challenging traditional thinking, structures and policy and introducing new ideas and concepts. The SBM should have skills to evaluate all operational systems in schools, enabling them to carry out process mapping and evaluate current practice through a cost-benefit analysis.

The main focus is to look at systems and improve efficiency levels. This can be carried out at all levels, from simple tasks such as:

  • improving communication systems
  • using ICT and the school’s management information systems to the full to reduce manual administration and data collection
  • observing current practices

… to more complex projects such as:

  • planning and refurbishment of internal areas
  • development of long-term building plans
  • project managing capital work for improving the teaching environment.

This is a key process to redirect senior leadership time to improve teaching and learning and has a clear link to raising standards.  

5. Personnel and remodelling

The SBM can play a significant part in the remodelling reforms, bringing their expertise to bear on the planning and management of resources, as well as taking some of the management load off heads and senior teachers with regards to staffing and personnel issues. The SBM can assist in most areas of the staff development policy and change management programmes, ensuring support and finance are available. The SBM should have a working knowledge of policy and procedure and would be able to carry out skills audits and motivate and lead a team. They should act as liaison officer for all staff during the day ensuring they are properly informed and have an accessible point of contact for any personnel issues.

The SBM should play an important role in directing staffing resource for efficiency and economy, often managing the cover supervision needs of the school and managing the operational provision of support staff for classes and individual children. The SBM can develop systems to assess risk, monitor sickness, look at work-life balance issues and support all staff members, acting as a link to the local authority for all personnel matters. This will provide an efficient personnel management system and benefit staff during times of change and will assist with the ethos of team development working and redirect leadership time back to teaching and learning and raising standards.

6. Facilities, grounds and buildings

In my experience premises issues are the most common areas that take the headteacher away from their day-to-day duties. Premises issues often relate to a health and safety problem and need immediate attention. In many schools the site managers work split shifts and are unavailable between 10am and 2pm; the headteacher, therefore, becomes the first point of contact for emergencies.

The SBM should be familiar with all building, premises, facilities and service level agreements. They need to have a good understanding of all aspects of the estate and should be able to deal with most problems arising during the school day. The SBM should develop the health, safety, risk, disaster and critical incident policies and manage all operational aspects of the premises, including maintenance, lettings and revenue programmes. The SBM should communicate and liaise with relevant agencies on behalf of the headteacher.

In a broader sense the SBM, working closely with the site manager, should take responsibility for the operational aspects of estate management. Together they will manage the environment to ensure that it is safe, clean and accessible for the benefit of all children and staff, directly raising standards. In the past six months in my role as SBM this area has given the most time back to the headteacher.

7. The future of the school

The SBM, through the above six areas, will inevitably develop an holistic view of the school’s plans for improvement, supported by an in-depth knowledge of operational and financial planning. The SBM is therefore in a key position to support the governors and headteacher in their longer term planning and futuring for the sustainability of the school’s business. No single member of the school community can be solely responsible for the massive change programme facing schools. The challenges that face schools of the future are vast, but with the support and expertise of a quality, skilled and trained school business manager the prospects for leadership and management to continually improve teaching and learning are greatly improved.

Hilary Morrison is business manager at Wigan Sacred Heart Catholic School.