I often come into contact with experienced school business managers (SBMs) or bursars and my conversations with these professionals make me realise how difficult it is to generalise about the nature of their role.
As part of my work as a researcher for The Key, I have found that in some schools, SBMs are part of the senior leadership team, and in other schools they are not.
Some SBMs are accountable to the headteacher or a deputy, while others are on a par with the headteacher and report directly to the governing body.
In one school, the SBM might manage a number of staff, but in a neighbouring school the SBM might not manage anyone.
Last year, I interviewed a group of SBMs in primary and secondary schools to try and pin down exactly what they do.
I asked them: “What does your average day look like?” They all said there was no such thing; indeed to a few it seemed the idea of “an average day” was almost laughable.
Nonetheless, though the routine may vary, I identified some common tasks associated with the role.
All of the SBMs I spoke to noted that financial management and administration were extremely important day-to-day – tasks such as setting, monitoring and reporting the budget took up a lot of their time. This was not surprising. I think most people in the education sector would strongly associate SBMs and bursars with financial management. However, finance is only part of it.
I found that a big part of the role is line-management. One of the secondary SBMs I interviewed line-manages eight members of staff, including the headteacher’s personal assistant. Another secondary SBM is responsible for all support staff.
I also spoke to SBMs in primary schools who are line managers, although they tended to have fewer people directly reporting to them than their secondary colleagues.
Data from The Key supports this finding. SBMs using our service in the summer term earlier this year were particularly interested in:
The performance management of administrative staff.
Pay statements for teachers
Interview questions and recruitment tasks.
Interest in staff matters sat alongside interest in articles about statutory policies and documents and the role of the SBM during Ofsted inspection.
Our data also showed that in the summer term, SBMs frequently sought information about engaging with parents and carers.
I found this surprising because when I first began reflecting on the SBM role, I did not picture it as parent-facing. One might assume that teachers and support staff are much more likely to be engaged with talking to parents.
However, having presented these findings at recent conferences and asked whether it reflects their experience, the vast majority of SBMs confirm that talking to parents is a big and increasingly important part of their job.
The introduction of universal infant free school meals for primary schools and changes to funding for SEN have increased this trend, as has the need to register children for the Pupil Premium.
Data from The Key can also shed light on what the SBMs are not very interested in. A list of the 200 most popular articles with SBMs during the summer term 2014 suggests that school governance is not a major focus.
Governance-related articles appear at numbers 78, 153 and 158, while articles about staff and finance dominate the top 20.
All the SBMs I interviewed explained that they formally report to the governing body at least once a year, usually about the school budget.
For many that was the limit of their contact, but I have come across others who are more engaged with governance issues. One SBM I spoke to was an associate member of the governing body and sat on the resources committee. Nonetheless, this level of SBM involvement in school governance is not the norm.
At local working groups of SBMs, which I have attended, I have shared this view of SBMs as school leaders with wide-ranging responsibilities. In several cases, SBMs I spoke with expressed frustration that their jobs are misunderstood by colleagues. They feel headteachers and senior leaders tend to think of the SBM role as budget-focused and do not take into account the varied ways they contribute to the school. Consequently, some SBMs feel undervalued.
Perhaps some of this dissatisfaction can be chalked up to the stresses of working in the current education climate. However, it seems it can also be explained by the ambiguous origins of this role.
In recent years, the idea of schools as businesses has gained momentum, possibly fuelled by the growth of academies and increasing school autonomy.
Before this, business management responsibilities were often tacked on to existing roles and, consequently, an SBM or bursar may have started out in a very different job to the one they have now.
At the same time, school leaders may struggle to embrace them as fully fledged members of the senior leadership team because the point at which an SBM progressed past the level of support staff is unclear.
Of course this is not true in all schools. For example, some SBMs work across academy chains or federations and operate at a level higher than the headteachers of individual schools.
Nevertheless, unless a school really appreciates the need for effective school business management and everything this involves, there remains a risk that the SBM will sit in a grey area with responsibilities equal to that of senior staff but without the recognition.
It is vital to remember that a school is also a business – dealing with employees, “customers” and other stakeholders.
An SBM does not just set the budget and manage the money side of things, he or she line-manages staff and deals directly with parents, pupils, suppliers and governors.
Some senior leaders are already very comfortable thinking in this way and work with their SBMs accordingly, but for others a shift in mindset may be overdue.
Kate Gilliford is a senior researcher at The Key, a question-answering service that supports school leaders and governors.