Over the last few years, I have written many articles and had numerous discussions concerning the role and status of the school business manager. One issue that has repeatedly arisen is the difficulties that some post-holders have with trying to ensure that they are contributing as – and being perceived as – full and effective members of the senior leadership team in their schools.
In a workshop that I ran at the School Financial Management conference in January, many SBMs articulated their frustrations at what they viewed as a lack of recognition of the complexity of their roles, and a sense of marginalisation from leadership teams made up exclusively of individuals from teaching backgrounds.
In this article, I will attempt to address some of the issues which I feel are at the heart of these difficulties, and to provide some practical advice on how to overcome them.
In many school settings, the prevailing attitude seems to be that education and finance are pitted against each other. In this climate, it is all too easy for the teaching members of the SLT to roll their eyes every time money is mentioned, and to approach any attempt to discuss the financial aspects of decision-making as an attack on education itself. Conversely, it is also easy for the business manager to lose sight of what the teaching management are trying to achieve, and to sigh and tut and mention money or health and safety whenever any new plan is tabled.
Leadership antipathy to finance often has its roots in a simple fear of the unknown. There is no place for financial and resources management in most teachers’ professional training, and even if they hold NPQH, they may have had little experience of financial decision-making. It is therefore entirely possible that most members of your leadership team have very little understanding in this area, and will feel threatened by the financial aspects of management – even more so if they are presented in unfamiliar language. Especially in circumstances where the business manager feels marginalised, it is very tempting – intentionally or subconsciously – to present financial issues as more complex and mysterious than they actually are, thus attempting to redress the balance of power.
While entirely understandable from both perspectives, this kind of polarisation is dangerous and, ultimately, not in the best interests of the school or the young people it supports. Decisions made in an environment which takes an ‘either/or’ approach to finance and education are often not the best decisions. Financial management (and premises management, and health and safety) is not about stopping young people from learning, or preventing a school from being innovative or creative. It is about making sure that available resources are maximised and are allocated in the best way.
Promoting finance as a school improvement tool
A good way of crystallising the positive aspects of the relationship between finance and education is to view, and to promote, finance as a school improvement tool. In this climate, the educational experts would understand the inevitable reality of limited resources and the business/finance experts would understand the educational priorities and use their skills to assist the leadership team in achieving them. Below are some ways to gradually re-frame the relationship and improve financial literacy of leadership:
Always link finance to core business – budget-setting and monitoring are not things that happen outside of the day-to-day business of running a school. If done properly, they are the tools that make things happen and make a difference to staff and students. Design your cost centre structure to reflect current initiatives and sections of the school improvement plan, and always relate financial information to the activities that it is funding.
Avoid jargon – or if you do have to use it, make sure you explain what it means. Phrases such as ‘section 52′, ‘purchase order and ‘journal’ may be everyday language for you, but they will mean very little to your average deputy or assistant head.
Bring the budget to life – use graphs and charts to compare different areas of spending; identify the controllable (eg staff training, marketing) and non-controllable (eg rates) elements of expenditure by highlighting different parts of the budget in different colours; make sure all your columns of numbers have clear, understandable headings. Put important figures in bold, and annotate them if necessary (eg ‘this is how much we will have left at the end of the year’).
Show the links between educational decisions and financial impact – create interactive spreadsheets which update a simple surplus/deficit chart if you make changes to staffing or pupil numbers, and do a demonstration to the SLT. Use the Audit Commission analysis tool to show the relationships between costs and outcomes in different curriculum areas.
Never say ‘it can’t be done’ – be receptive, however outlandish or impractical the proposal may be. Offer to cost it, and then identify how it could be paid for (and what might have to be sacrificed in the process).
Avoiding a polarised environment
If we want to avoid the polarised environment described in earlier paragraphs, then we need to embrace the notion of the financial manager primarily as an enabler of educational vision – and to do this, it is necessary to understand and subscribe to that vision. In an ideal world, our headteachers would be sensitive to our areas for development and assist us to overcome them. In the real world, however, we cannot rely on that, but instead need to be proactive. Some ways of doing this could be:
Showing you’re interested – in the polarised school, there is a stereotype of the school business manager as someone who sits in an office and stares at spreadsheets, occasionally emerging to refuse petty cash claims or insist on risk assessments for school concerts. Make sure that you do all you can to confound this stereotype: make an appointment with your headteacher and underline your commitment to being a full member of the leadership team. His or her support will be essential if you want to develop your role.
Contribute where you can – make sure that you don’t ‘zone out’ in SLT meetings if a discussion isn’t directly relevant. If you are a leader of the school, then everything is relevant. If you don’t understand something, or if you are not confident enough to ask in the meeting, speak to a supportive colleague afterwards. Every time you hear an acronym or a piece of jargon you don’t understand, write it down and then ask about it or look it up later.
Get first-hand experience – one of the criticisms which can sometimes be levelled at business managers is that they come from a non-teaching background and can’t understand the complex issues and pressures that are faced by teaching staff. If you are part of the leadership team of an organisation, then gaining an understanding of core business can only improve your professional and personal effectiveness.
Try to make some time to observe lessons delivered by teachers across the curriculum and across the quality spectrum. Consider not only the content of the lesson, but also how aspects of your areas of responsibility – facilities, ICT, deployment of teaching assistants – influence the effectiveness of delivery and learning outcomes.
On the pastoral side, take the opportunity to shadow heads of year or pastoral managers; ask if you can sit in on student and parent interviews, and make your own assessment of how well the behaviour management and rewards systems function in your school, and whether the support from your teams is the best that it can be.
Get involved – as well as observing and shadowing teaching staff, there are ample opportunities in most schools for you to gain hands-on experience of working with students. This will not only help you to develop your understanding of the unique nature of work with young people, but will also enable you to become a more active member of your school community.
Examples of this could be running an after-school club; contributing to the financial capability within PHSCE; taking part in educational visits, or getting involved in drama productions.
Involve your teams – just as you can benefit from a greater understanding of core business, so can that the teams who work for you. While I wouldn’t necessarily recommend a full programme of lesson observations, I would suggest that they get a regular update from you on your school’s progress and plans, and that they are encouraged to get involved in extra-curricular activities and events. It may even be worth offering the opportunity for an hour or so a week helping out in an area other than their ‘normal’ job – examples of this could include administrative staff working with SEN students on literacy, or site staff assisting with an environmental project in science. This will not only increase staff buy-in, insight and commitment, but may also present career and personal development opportunities.
Increase your impact
Acting upon some or all of the suggestions above will certainly assist in raising your profile within your school, and your effectiveness as a member of the leadership team. To build on this there are a number of additional things that you could do to increase your impact even more. For example:
Act like a leader – work out what defines the teaching members of the leadership team in your school, and make sure that you take on those responsibilities too – with support or training if necessary. This could include taking assemblies; dealing with difficult parents; presenting on Inset days; carrying out lunch duties; supervising detentions; or attending evening events.
Take on whole-school responsibilities – you will already have responsibility for a range of whole-school issues, likely to be support staff, finance and premises. However, speak to your head about taking on other areas that have some relationship to your role but which may normally be overseen by teaching members of the leadership team. Examples could include Healthy Schools, community cohesion or Investors in People. This would potentially give you the opportunity to lead members of the teaching staff, and to demonstrate your organisational and management skills to a wider audience.
Lead on funding bids – it is likely that, within your school, there will be any number of ideas for projects that could make a huge difference for young people, but which are prevented from taking place without additional finance. Gather information on these potential projects, either through talking to people or by issuing a form for completion, and then work to identify prospective funding sources and draft a bid. This can be done through your local authority external funding unit, via internet searches or a subscription to Grantfinder.
Being an effective SLT leader
Your effectiveness as a member of the leadership team will depend on three crucial areas. The first of these is the support of your head: if you work for somebody who regards your role as peripheral, then you will never get the encouragement or assistance that you need. In this situation, you have the stark choice of staying where you are and not developing, or moving on to somewhere with more opportunity.
The second critical area is how far you are willing to go beyond your comfort zone. For most (although not all) people in the SBM role, dealing with student behaviour issues or leading an assembly will be a daunting prospect. There is no shame in deciding you don’t want to do those things, but bear in mind that one of the characteristics of most leaders is the ability to conquer their fears. As most parachute jumpers will confirm, there is no better feeling than the one you experience when you have successfully done something you were terrified of – and there is no better way of boosting your confidence and belief in yourself.
Finally, your potential to grow in stature as a leader within your school will depend upon your capacity to regularly go the ‘extra mile’ to achieve results and job satisfaction.
Many of the suggestions that I have made will take time, and it is unlikely that you will be able to find that time within your contracted hours. I appreciate that this may seem unfair, especially if you are paid less than other leadership team members. However, rightly or wrongly, working extra hours in work and at home is a harsh reality of leadership in most organisations, as is taking on extra responsibility without extra pay, at least initially. Extra effort now could well be an investment in increased recognition and rewards at a later date – and ultimately, it is up to you whether you feel that investment will be worth it.
Ruth Bradbury is assistant principal (finance and business management) at Darwen Aldridge Community Academy