Ruth Bradbury considers the relationship and boundaries between the roles of school business manager and teaching and learning leader
A couple of weeks ago, I contributed to an online debate on the NCSL website about schools’ approach to financial management. The discussion focused on the relationship between headteachers and business managers, and on the level of understanding of finance required for the leaders of a school whose primary focus is on learning and teaching. While I was pleased that the subject was being debated, and that many headteachers and business managers were contributing, I nevertheless became increasingly frustrated as I read through the posts. The underpinning premise of the discussion topic, and one that was accepted without question by the majority of contributors, was that ‘education’ and ‘finance’ inhabit conflicting positions in the arena of school leadership. It was assumed that if a school concentrated on one of the two areas, then there would be an inevitable detrimental effect on the other. In other words, if a headteacher pays attention to drafting the spending plan, then the school’s core business of education will suffer. Similarly, some views offered by business managers suggested that the prioritising of educational objectives will normally have adverse financial management implications. I do, of course, have a degree of empathy with both of those viewpoints. For a headteacher, it must be immensely frustrating to have a vision for your school, to want to make things happen to raise achievement and improve children’s life chances and to be hampered at every turn by the practicalities of budgets, by restrictions on ring-fenced funding, by requirements for governor or local authority approval and so on. Furthermore, if you are the appointed leader of an organisation, then it must exasperate you no end to be told by your business manager, who is supposed to be working for you, what you can and cannot do in your school – especially when he or she uses a load of words – like ‘virement’, ‘out-turn’ and ‘accrual’ – that you don’t understand but feel you ought to. On the other hand, as someone with first-hand experience, I know how utterly maddening it can be when the headteacher breezes into the office and tells you that (s)he has been to visit a school where every child has been provided with a Playstation 3/pet rabbit/daily ration of caviar and (s)he has decided that your school is going to do the same. Or when (s)he stops you on the corridor, rattles off a vague explanation of a project which involves loads of equipment and staffing but will ‘pay for itself’ (words that strike terror into my heart) via some vague and mystical transfer of funds. So, of course I understand the roots of the debate, and why the areas of finance and core business have been set in opposition to one another. I also understand that this is a position that is reinforced by the media and by politicians, and that certainly isn’t restricted to education. Debates around all aspects of the public sector, especially the NHS, will focus on a battle between funding levels and quality/extent of service. I also realise that of course resources are always limited, and that of course financial concerns will have an impact on what an organisation can do. What I object to is the worrying assumption by many that it is the job of one person (the headteacher) to ‘do’ education, and the job of another (the business manager) to ‘do’ finance: that these two individuals will sit in their separate offices and do their thing, and then occasionally meet (either one to one or around the senior leadership team table) with finance in the red corner and education in the blue corner to take part in a frustrating battle in which one will ‘win’ and the other will ‘lose’. I know from my own work, and from talking to any number of school business managers, that this scenario doesn’t need to be – and increasingly isn’t – the case. But for a ‘third way’ to work, there needs to be an understanding – on both sides – that finance and education can work together to make things happen. The ultimate objective of a school must always be to enable young people to learn and to achieve, and this should also be the ultimate focus of school finance – and for other resources such as staffing and premises. Resources management is an important part of leadership, and that is in relation to headteachers as well as to business managers.
By the same token, an understanding of and commitment to education is an integral part of school resources management. Behind every figure on every spreadsheet are opportunities for young people to learn and develop, and this should never be forgotten. Financial planning offers an opportunity for an overview of whole-school activity for a period of time, and introduces a rigour to the planning and implementation of that learning and development. At their best, spending plans are not unnecessary ‘paperwork’; they are a carefully considered and strategically planned statement of intent of how a school is going to deliver its core objectives in the next financial year and beyond.