Emerging trends for the school business manager

Written by: Russell Dalton | Published:
Photo: iStock

A report looking at how the role of the school business manager is evolving, has highlighted some worrying trends, says Russell Dalton

Last year, an article in SecEd said that “school business managers are as important in keeping schools running as other senior leaders are in keeping teaching and learning on track” – The evolving role of SBMs, SecEd, January 2014.

A new report out this week really underlines the rise of the school business manager (SBM) within secondary schools. I was part of the Advisory Group for the research, which was undertaken by Every for Education, a school business management system, and had the support of the National Association of School Business Management (NASBM).

The report provides a very useful update on the SBM role and how it is changing and evolving.

One of the most positive findings from the research is the rise in status of the role within schools. Encouragingly, the research highlights that senior leadership teams are increasingly recognising the value of the SBM role.

Two years ago, less than half (46 per cent) of respondents believed the role was perceived to be valuable or essential compared to 84 per cent today. One outcome of this is that SBMs are becoming part of the senior leadership team. Four in five of the respondents report that this is the case at their school. In many instances the SBM is the first non-teaching position to be appointed to the senior leadership team.

In my experience, this is a very positive move for the senior leadership team. SBMs bring a different perspective to planning and strategy, as well as expertise from outside education.

Typically they will look at things from the perspective of budget, health and safety, premises, staffing, legislation, business opportunities, marketing or any number of things that are not actually teaching. At the same time, joining the senior leadership team is incredibly useful for SBMs and gives them a greater understanding of the strategic context for their work.

However, while the value of SBMs is better understood in schools, the research does highlight three worrying trends.

1, Increased pressure

The research makes it clear that the role has become more pressured in the past five years. Nine out of 10 (95 per cent) respondents report they have taken on more responsibility. More than three-quarters also report that the role has become more complicated and they need to deal with more paperwork, contracts and incidents.

Certainly my own experience reflects this. As more schools become academies, local authorities are reducing the support they can offer. More responsibility is coming back into the school, whether they are an academy or still under local authority control. In academies, the SBM role also expands as the school takes on greater responsibilities, such as producing the annual accounts for auditing and fulfilling all the legal requirements for a limited company.

2, School complexity

The research highlights that there is a greater emphasis on school-to-school collaboration and SBMs play a key role. There is much strength in collaboration and I advocate it at every opportunity. However, it is important that schools look beyond obvious areas such as joint procurement.

At my school we provide many services to other schools including SBM support, catering, IT, peripatetic technicians, and marketing to mention but a few.

These bring in welcome income and allow us to employ expert staff to provide the services. In turn this extra resource is a benefit to our school, but management of this is much more complex and SBMs need to have the right skills and help.

3, School budgets

The third issue highlighted in the research is about school budgets. More than 90 per cent of SBMs said their greatest concern for the future was managing the school budget.

Balancing of the budget is usually seen as the responsibility of the SBM and therefore there is a great deal of pressure on their shoulders to ensure this can happen. Income generation is now a key part of this and SBMs play an important role. They regularly manage additional activities such as the hiring of school premises, bidding for grants and generating sponsorship.

An important factor here is the individual context of a school and income generation can vary a great deal due to this. Also, the mindset and ethos of the school, and the particular skills of a SBM influence income generation.

However, the research highlights the growing importance of this part of the job and I feel that SBMs will need to be more entrepreneurial in order to generate sufficient income. It is no surprise that the research also mentions that NASBM’s most popular training is income generation.

Increasing professionalism

As well as these worrying trends one of the most positive areas highlighted in the research is around the growing professionalism of the role.

Fourteen years ago, the then National College launched a suite of programmes for SBMs. Since then work has continued to help define a competency framework and professional standards and develop qualifications.

However, the role has evolved considerably. Indeed a majority of respondents to the research highlighted that the role had changed a great deal in just the past five years.

NASBM is now developing a new competency framework, which will be launched later this year. This will include new professional standards to cover all aspects of the SBM role and changes to the main responsibilities of the role reflecting the requirements that academisation has brought.

There is a great appetite for professional development from SBMs and the research found that more than three quarters of respondents held a SBM qualification. Other relevant qualifications are also commonly held including: financial and accountancy, facilities management, and HR. Furthermore, two-thirds reported undertaking training or professional development in the previous 12 months.

Future developments

The research identifies that technology will be an important influence on the SBM role and its functions. SBMs are already enthusiastic users of technology.

Nine out of 10 respondents considered the use of management software programmes as very important for their role. In fact, 95 per cent commented that they are reliant on some form of software system or bespoke software package to aid and support their role.

In addition, more that 70 per cent of the respondents report that mobile devices and cloud computing are important for their role and allow staff on different sites to stay connected. This makes sense to me but I would add that it is important that SBMs can still switch off and that greater connectedness doesn’t lead to an “always on” culture.

The research suggests that SBMs would welcome greater integration of technology and software, which they feel would help to save time. It predicts that multiple locations will increase reliance on technology.

Finally, the research underlines how important collaboration and joined up working is for developing a shared understanding of the SBM role. I am sure we have all heard this sort of thing before, but what is interesting about SBMs is that it is a close-knit community and we do work together.

This is why NASBM has consulted so widely on the development of the new competency framework. In my view, it is the essential ingredient that is needed to ensure SBMs continue to keep schools running and enable senior leaders and teachers to keep teaching and learning on track.

  • Russell Dalton is finance and business director at Pershore High School in Worcestershire.

Further information

To read more about the research visit www.weareevery.com


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