I have just got back from the SFM annual conference in London: a long journey for me, but definitely worth it – not only because it gave me the opportunity to present a couple of sessions, but also because it is encouraging to see the quality and variety of business management professionals who are now working in our schools.

By Ruth Bradbury

At the conference, there were several mentions of the extended schools agenda – particularly in relation to fundraising issues – but also a number of more general points about the role of the extended school in the community. A couple of the speakers clarified and reinforced my own views about the initiative and the way that it fits not only into wider national agendas but also – ultimately – into the drive to raise standards of attainment in our schools.

There are really two main strands to this kind of thinking. First of all, there is the (to me completely irrefutable) argument that schools are – or at least should be – a vital community resource. They are substantial and secure buildings, often in central or easily accessible locations, and filled with teaching and learning resources such as computers, libraries, technology workshops and sports and arts facilities. If they are only open during school hours, on weekdays, and in term-time, then these facilities are only being used for around 16% of the time and are only accessible to roughly 20% of the population. Especially in areas of deprivation and/or low skills, this seems to me an inexcusable under-use of public resources which could be employed for any number of regeneration, community-building and lifelong learning initiatives.

Secondly, within this vision for wider community use, there is a clear case for extended schools as a long-term tool in the drive to improve educational standards and attainment in young people. Statistics tell us that there is a correlation between the socio-economic status and educational attainment of adults and the attitudes, behaviour and performance of their children. If schools were not only providing facilities for community use but also devising and running family learning projects, adult literacy classes and sessions on citizenship and parenting skills; if they were working not only with their own students but also with parents, grandparents and other members of the community; if they were linking with agencies such as medical and social services, counselling organisations and charitable trusts – then they would be contributing to the shaping, regeneration and education of whole communities and, through this, improving the life chances of their own students.

This is the vision, then, and this is why I believe that the extended schools agenda is a social and moral necessity for all who work in schools. However, the beauty of visions is that they are necessarily a ‘big picture’ exercise and therefore lack any tedious consideration of practicalities. For business managers and bursars, the implementation of the extended schools agenda will therefore pose a particularly challenging dilemma: as senior leaders (or aspiring senior leaders) in our schools, it is our role to share and implement the vision, and to take our staff along with us.

However, it is also our role to safeguard our assets and to ensure the health, safety and security of staff and students. When somebody says ‘extended schools’ to me, I can jump for joy as I picture cosy images of community projects and family team-building days – and at the same time a part of me will quake with terror at the prospect of pensioners tumbling from climbing walls, teenagers helping themselves to the contents of an entire computer suite and dubious-looking strangers in long overcoats turning up to enrol on inter-generational pottery classes.

In fact, this issue quite neatly exposes the conflict inherent in just about every aspect of the business manager role. It goes without saying that just about every one of us is committed to serving and getting the best for and from the young people in our schools. In fact, many would argue that we must be, or there’s no way we would stick at the job! 

At the same time, though, we are the people who are so often the wet blankets and the spoilers; the officious pedants who squash enthusiasm and creativity by asking unreasonable questions about costs or outcomes or risk assessments. It’s a difficult balancing act, and it rarely makes us friends. Nevertheless, it is essential to have somebody who does think of such things and who raises the sensible questions, however unpalatable they may be.

There is no perfect solution, of course: by the very nature of our job descriptions we will continue to provoke theatrical groans and rolling of eyes when we make our points at leadership meetings. However, it may help if we try to remember a few key points about what our role is actually about. In my view, the core purpose of the business manager is all about turning vision into action; about taking account of the barriers and practicalities (physical, logistical, legal, financial) and then making it happen anyway because within our schools we are the best-prepared people in terms of attitude, experience and knowledge to navigate the route from vision to reality.

If we view ourselves ultimately as enablers rather than preventers; if we always offer a solution as well as a problem, then maybe we can perform the tricky balancing of the ideal and the real and know that we have been able to make a real difference.