The fight for status

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With huge variations in pay and job descriptions, school business managers often feel isolated in their role, says Christine Lewis.

More than 20 years ago, school secretaries were beginning to feel the pressure as local management of schools began to add to their in-tray. CROSS (Campaign for Recognition of School Secretaries) was indeed very cross at the increasing workload and complexity of their role. They also felt misunderstood and unappreciated compared to teaching staff.

Since then, the school finance and management responsibilities of the bursar, school business manager or director have developed beyond recognition and there is now a tall ladder of qualifications. No doubt some have reaped the rewards of a professionalisation process, but is there still a lingering level of second class status for some? 

UNISON surveyed school business managers earlier this year and the results provide a mixed picture. Over 15 per cent of respondents are now working in academies. Of these, 93 per cent said that conversion to academy status had increased their workload and 67 per cent said that it was more complex.

The range of duties seem endless with nearly all respondents responsible for the budget and accounts and often contracts, staff, premises, IT, health and safety, legal compliance, external relations and income generation. More than 11 per cent manage multiple sites and three per cent multiple schools.

The pressure of “not enough hours in the day” was an ever-present comment. In addition, a major problem for support staff in schools is that pay has not kept pace consistently with the seismic change in roles and responsibilities. This was reflected in the survey – with the number of respondents on term-time contracts (more than 35 per cent) surprisingly high, given that school management is a year round activity. 

The most usual pay range was £35,000 to £40,000, although there was wide variation, with some below £20,000 and others above £45,000. This is a vexed issue for two main reasons: the rest of the senior management team with teaching backgrounds are often paid more and local authority job evaluation has in some cases led to downgrading.

There was also significant variation in access to training and CPD. Where qualifications had been achieved, some were disappointed that it made no difference to their career path or level of reward. 

The survey creates a composite image of a job requiring a high level of multi-skilling with responsibilities sometimes ranging from the most senior to the most menial. Some respondents felt undervalued and unappreciated, while others felt that the demands of their job were not understood, especially in primary schools. 

Some said that they never had space to work uninterrupted but others expressed a sense of isolation. One said: “I feel so alone in the role.” There are school business managers who feel valued (included in curriculum issues, for example) and an equal part of the leadership team. Others feel marginalised and lacking the status of the teaching fraternity.

What hope then for school business managers who feel beleaguered? Isolation can be offset by e-networks. UNISON has a well subscribed one. SBM Advocates can advise on courses and networks around the country (see below).

The local government joint council has been reviewing school job profiles and we hope that this will translate to a much better idea of the weight of different roles and their contribution, including those of school business managers. The work of running a school is varied, interesting, challenging and rewarding. It should also be appropriately paid and maybe as importantly, appropriately appreciated.

Further information
SBM Advocates: www.education.gov.uk/nationalcollege/index/support-for-schools/sbm-advocates


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