School business managers – Beyond the budget

Written by: Sara McNeillis | Published:
Photo: iStock

Business management in a school extends so much further than looking after the budget. Dispelling the myths, Sara McNeillis explores some of the other ways SBMs make a real difference in schools

As autonomy and accountability increase and budgets tighten, shrewd school business management is taking on ever-greater significance. It is often assumed, even within schools, that the discipline is mainly about clever crunching of numbers – but school business managers (SBMs) know that their impact doesn’t start and end with a spreadsheet.

SBMs use their expertise not just to keep the school afloat, but also to help create the best outcomes for each and every pupil in ways you might not expect.

Every school is different and no two SBMs work in quite the same way, but as the recently published professional standards for school business management highlight, there are several areas in addition to budget management where SBMs prove vital in their schools’ success.

Here are just four such ways that have become apparent to me while speaking to SBMs across the country.

Forming and upholding the vision

The development of a school’s vision should be a joint effort between staff, governors, parents and pupils. Successful implementation of the vision depends upon it being shared and owned by all members of the community; a firmly embedded vision feeds into every area of school life, from classroom displays to staff recruitment to strategic leadership decisions.

As the SBM of a school in Wokingham explained, having a shared vision for the school also helps a headteacher and SBM to work towards the same goals. This doesn’t mean they always have to agree, she added – an SBM can strengthen the headteacher’s position, and vice-versa, by challenging and playing devil’s advocate. The combination of expertise in business and learning, under a shared vision, can drive up standards and raise outcomes for pupils.

Keeping the school standing

A clear vision is important, but not terribly helpful without a solid building in which to implement it.
SBMs can prove invaluable during the turmoil of a building project, which demands a rare combination of skills and a meticulous knowledge of the school itself. The school’s vision feeds in here too – as if the health and safety risks, costs and practical logistics of a project weren’t enough to consider, building designs should also reflect the school’s values and approach to learning.

The headteacher of a secondary in Hertfordshire told me that maintaining high academic standards is one of the biggest challenges during a major building project, as it is easy to become distracted from the core purpose of teaching and learning.

For this reason, he allocated his SBM time and resources to lead the project of rebuilding the school, with the support of an assistant headteacher.

The headteacher only took part in significant decisions concerning the project – focusing instead on maintaining standards – while the business manager took care of the operational delivery.

Keeping the school safe

Every member of the school community plays a part in ensuring that their environment is safe, but the variety of questions that we receive from SBMs gives a fascinating insight into the breadth of their role with regards to health and safety.

In 2015, business managers asked us for information on risk-management issues ranging from fire prevention to concerns over swimming pools, egg boxes, sunglasses, hepatitis B, and sprung dance floors.

The Health and Safety Executive’s stance (see further information) on taking a sensible approach to risk-management applies to all of the above. Clear procedures, practical assessment of real risks and appropriate control measures will ensure that the school meets its duty to look after staff and pupils. Nevertheless, safety is still a huge and time-consuming area of responsibility.

While the employer has ultimate legal responsibility for health and safety in the school, on a day-to-day basis the duty often falls to a member of the senior leadership team, and often the SBM.
As the business manager of a school in Nottinghamshire explained, undertaking this duty – and other compliance-related tasks where appropriate – allows the headteacher to concentrate on ensuring pupils learn, and therefore benefits the school more widely.

Enabling teaching and learning

It is a common misconception that school business management is separate from teaching and learning.

Yet decisions relating to curriculum provision have a financial implication, and several school leaders have spoken to us about the logic – and benefit – of involving the SBM in these decisions.

An SBM from an academy in Warwickshire explained that the headteacher regularly updates her on any curriculum changes that may have an impact on resources.

Other SBMs collaborate directly with heads of departments when deciding how to allocate resources. This gives a clearer picture of each department’s needs, enabling more efficient allocation of the budget.

A practitioner from the National Association of School Business Management noted that it may also have the benefit of giving the department head greater satisfaction in the final allocation, due to his or her input in the decision.

The result? Positive staff relationships and intelligent use of resources to support children’s learning as effectively as possible.

  • Sara McNeillis is a researcher specialising in school administration and management at The Key, which provides leadership and management support to schools.

Further information

  • The voluntary professional standards for SBMs have been published by the National Association of School Business Management: http://bit.ly/1P4iGt9
  • Access the school business managers’ zone at The Key via http://bit.ly/1jZHvJL
  • Sensible health and safety management in schools, Health and Safety Executive: http://bit.ly/1Oti6R9


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