Over the past eight or nine years, the school business management profession has gone through a period of rapid and exciting development with a significant – and growing – number of schools and collaborative arrangements now including a school business manager on their senior leadership team.

Whilst some of these teams may include other support staff colleagues, generally speaking the SBM will be the sole representative from support staff.

After the rather less than successful efforts of the England football team this year, it hardly takes Buchholz and Roth to tell us that ‘Wearing the same shirts doesn’t make you a team’. However, it is a rather relevant message for SBMs who are struggling to be taken seriously, especially in SLTs where there is no previous history of including colleagues without a teaching background. Just because you all metaphorically ‘wear the same shirts’ as members of the SLT, it doesn’t automatically mean that you will be working cohesively and cooperatively as a team.

Senior leadership teams who have only ever had teaching colleagues tread their hallowed turf have good reason to find it difficult to adjust to this new person suddenly in their midst. The team has responsibility for a complex range of issues and being able to trust each other, especially in difficult times, is a prerequisite for success. From their perspective, the SBM might be an unknown quantity – ‘not one of them’ – which can lead to distrust and tension.

The top 10 tips in this article should help you survive life as a member of SLT and aim to provide support in making the relationship not only a happy one but also a mutually productive one for enhanced school development and improvement.

1. Stop making the coffee!

A familiar frustration for many SBMs is their perception that the rest of the team fail to take them seriously.

The tip is to start by taking yourself seriously. This is the senior leadership team of a complex and important organization and, by definition, you need to assume the mantles of senior leader and team member. There is no reason why you shouldn’t make the coffee at SLT meetings but if you allow yourself to make it each and every time you might as well have ‘coffee boy’ (or ‘girl’) emblazoned across your chest.

Get to the meeting early enough to ensure a seat away from the coffee mugs. Chat to your colleagues as they arrive and don’t even glance at the kettle. In time, someone thirstier than you will give in and make the drinks for the rest of the team. Let another couple of meetings go by then take your turn, and even flex your leadership skills by suggesting a rota for coffee making, minute taking etc.

2. Do your duty

Barbara Glacel and Emile Robert Jr wrote: ‘A team is more than a collection of people. It is a process of give and take.’

An excellent way for SBMs to give to the team as an equal member is to share the duty rota. It can be daunting, particularly in secondary schools, to perform duties with students and situations that you feel ill-equipped to handle. If you are anxious, buddy up with a team colleague first to learn the ropes. Then progress to covering for absence before finally having the courage to participate fully.

Learn some key strategies and know where to go for help. Interaction with the students will bring you closer to your core purpose and you will learn more about the issues that face them and their teachers, allowing you to offer a fresh perspective to the review and evaluation of how these duties are performed.

3. Get out more

In order to understand any new language, it is vital to converse with the natives. So, get out to as many school leadership events – conferences, workshops, etc. – as you can, especially where the topic is based on the curriculum, school improvement or anything else where you need to enhance your knowledge as a member of SLT.

Conferences and events aimed at heads and deputies are particularly useful and organizations such as the National College, the Association of School and College Leaders and the National Association of Head Teachers welcome SBMs to join their membership and attend their events. You will gain a wealth of strategic information and enjoy invaluable networking opportunities, including helping to demonstrate to other school leaders that SBMs are senior leaders too. To really make your point, put an item on the next available SLT agenda to provide feedback from the event.

4. Leadership, leadership, leadership

As a senior leader it is your responsibility to ensure effective line management, appraisal and succession planning for support staff. Schools are used to the concept of middle leaders amongst their teachers so replicate this within the support staff.

Ensure that you have an embedded appraisal policy and process in place and get to know your various support staff teams. Identify those teams that already have leaders, those that have nominal leaders and those that don’t yet have a leader in place. Consult with everyone and make sure that all team members are involved to help them understand the benefits for themselves and the students. Develop your middle leaders through meetings, training and involvement. For example, you might ask the head to include them in consultation for the annual review of the school’s SDP.

5. Sign up to full membership

Don’t let anyone say that your job doesn’t involve the curriculum. You have everything to do with the curriculum. Everything that you do is ultimately for the children and their learning. So when you attend SLT meetings, stay for the whole meeting. Inevitably you will leave a desk load of work behind but these meetings are important for sharing whole-school ideas, knowledge, vision and responsibility.

One aspect of your individual responsibility will be to embed the budget within the SDP and there is no better way than by ensuring that all members of SLT understand the breadth of opportunities represented within the budget as well as the many (and growing) restrictions imposed by it.

Likewise, you require a clear understanding of the school’s aims in order to support your colleagues in prioritizing strategies and actions in line with financial boundaries. By staying for the full meeting you will learn about the core and strategic business of running the school as well as reinforcing the fact that you are an equal member. Get into the habit of putting items on the agenda to illustrate that you are proactive and inclusive.

6. Take responsibility for leadership within the curriculum

Once you have more of an understanding of the curriculum areas of school leadership, you will be ready to assume some responsibility yourself. Spend time observing classroom practice to gain a better understanding of processes and difficulties. Get involved in subject and faculty reviews.

An essential part of subject or faculty leadership is management of the resources available to the department – financial and staffing. So develop a framework for reviewing how each department uses its finances and monitors its budget, and assess how they utilize support staff available to them. The review will give you the chance to identify any particular difficulties that the department and/or their leader faces and give you a better insight into the resourcing they require.

Arrange for a slot to present a workshop to department/faculty leaders so that you can explain to them as a group how the whole school budget works and the importance of careful procurement, budget monitoring and sharing of resources.

7. ‘We don’t see things as they are, we see them as we are’ (Anaïs Nin)

An unexpected bonus of having an SBM on SLT is that you bring a fresh and different perspective to the table. If the rest of the team are teachers, you will be uniquely placed to see things from a different angle. So speak up and never underestimate the richness that your own personal experience brings.

Don’t think that you don’t know enough about education. You were a student and you may even be (or have been) a parent of school-aged children. Whilst your teaching colleagues will usually view a situation as a teacher, you can see it differently.

If a lack of understanding of what is being said makes you wary of contributing, you will not be alone. Education is like any other business, full of jargon and acronyms. So ask. If you don’t understand what is being said, tell the team and explain what it is that you don’t understand. In turn you will probably discover that the team asks you more questions about your contributions and everyone gains a better understanding.

8. Aims, values and vision

Do you know the aims, values and visions of your school? And if you do, are you sure that all your support staff colleagues do?

If you answered ‘no’ to either of those questions, now is the time to do something about it. Negotiate a session in one of your SLT meetings for the team to re-evaluate the school’s aims, values and vision. This is an especially useful exercise to do before updating the school’s development plan and/or SEF. As a senior leader, it is within your remit to make sure that all the support staff understand what these qualities are and you can do that by informing and reminding and by demonstrating them in everything that you do as a leader.

9. Get developed

One difference between SBMs and their SLT colleagues can be the level of professional development that each has undertaken. This should not hold you back as there is a richness of professional development programs on offer for school business managers.

For example, the National College for Leadership of Schools and Children’s Services has a suite of programs on offer, and the Diploma for School Business Management is especially useful as it teaches the more strategic skills of change management, school improvement, and vision and values. The National Association for School Business Management is the UK’s leading association working exclusively on behalf of the SBM profession and offers a variety of programs including its MSc in Educational Leadership.

The Institute of Education, University of London has a broad and rich range of courses for professionals working in education, including masters and research degrees. Manchester Metropolitan University has the MSc Education Business Management, specially designed for school business managers, and the University of Lincoln offers the Educational Development MPhil/PhD.

10. Finally, enjoy

The last, but certainly not least, top tip is to enjoy the experience. Relax, get to know your colleagues. Understand their pressures and embrace their various personalities and senses of humor.

Will Schutz said, ‘team members who feel threatened but who are not aware of it become rigid – and that stops teamwork’. Although you may think that it is you who feels threatened, the rest of the team is just as likely to feel vulnerable as this new school business manager suddenly arrives, with such a vast array of knowledge, understanding and experience outside their comfort zone.

So, relax and help them to relax around you too. ‘Wear the same shirts’, work cohesively as a team, with all your complimentary but diverse attributes, and be proud to be different. Most of all, membership of SLT gives you a unique and special opportunity to contribute to improving the life chances of young people and their communities, so enjoy!

Nickii Messer is an experienced school business manager and freelance consultant

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