A new era of school business leadership

Written by: Stephen Morales | Published:
Image: Adobe Stock

Business leadership or management? Stephen Morales reflects on the changing role of the school business professional

In November, the National Association of School Business Management (NASBM) became the Institute of School Business Leadership (ISBL).

As chief executive of this new organisation, and as an experienced school business leader (SBL) myself, this is a momentous change. I have always been of the opinion that school business practitioners offer great potential, but that this goes largely untapped.

When I was first appointed CEO of NASBM, five years ago, it was clear to me that change was needed. The 2010 Academies Act had recently been passed, reshaping the professional landscape in unprecedented ways. Increasingly, traditional school business managers started adopting leadership roles. But it was clear that leadership development was lagging behind.

The challenge for NASBM was this: how could we effectively support our members without defining what school business leadership meant? How could we determine poor practice from mediocre and effective practice? Indeed, how could we define career pathways at all?

Developing professional standards

Anecdotally, many school business professionals – regardless of level – will attest to the fact that their responsibilities are increasing. But beyond a general sense of having “more to do”, along with juggling new specialisms like HR, procurement, marketing and finance, these new functions have been poorly defined.

To help classify these roles, the NASBM looked to the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD) and other professional institutes, both in the UK and overseas. We were interested in the American model, for instance, which has a mature and robust set of professional standards in the school business sector.

Next, with input from the Chartered Institute of Public Finance and Accountancy (CIPFA), we developed our own professional standards. These were aimed at supporting recruitment and performance management, but we also created a Qualifications Board to ensure they were being applied to professional qualifications too.
Redefining the school business role

Based on the new professional standards, we have been able to define three broad types of SBL.

The first is the local business leader, which has largely evolved from the “traditional” business management role. Local leaders tend to work standalone in schools, handling a wide range of disciplines. While they don’t always have a specialism, they’re vital to the senior leadership team. Without them, pedagogical staff would inevitably be distracted from their core responsibilities.

However, increasingly, I believe SBL roles are shifting outside of individual schools. Testament to this are emerging specialist and executive roles, which operate primarily in multi-academy trusts (MATs). Specialist roles might include finance director, HR director, or those with qualifications in procurement, school improvement and standards. Executive roles would include chief finance officer, chief operating officer, financial director or deputy CEO.

Shifting from management to leadership

Defining job roles and responsibilities is one important step, but the real task for NASBM was how to effectively bridge the gap between government reforms and workforce development. While many practitioners began their careers in administrative positions, the need for joined up leadership has shifted the way practitioners work. To a greater or lesser extent, leadership plays a part in all school business roles.

An effective school or MAT simply can’t operate on its own. Perhaps in the past, the pedagogical, business and governance functions of a school could get by in relative isolation. But today, this approach represents the legacy of what these roles have been, rather than embracing what they are evolving into. Schools and MATs need to work in an integrated, seamless and inclusive way.

While not everybody may see themselves as a leader, I believe all school business professionals, regardless of level, have a duty to keep pace with change. I fear those reluctant to engage in continuous improvement will get left behind. Tempering this though, I am also confident that those in the profession are keen to develop their leadership skills.

For all these reasons, and with the endorsement of our 3,000-strong membership, NASBM opted to transition from association to institute status.


As a formal professional body, the new ISBL aims to provide evolving standards and robust CPD, as well as qualifications and evaluation of practice. This idea is to allow members to evolve into effective SBLs, integrating their roles into schools and MAT executive teams, while elevating the overall profession.

We don’t want to leave anyone behind. This is why we are offering pathways from all levels to more senior leadership roles – from business professionals with or without qualifications, to trustees, governors, headteachers and even those new to the profession.

Our programmes include two fully funded apprentice pathways, aimed at ensuring CPD comes down not to cost, but to commitment.

ISBL’s immediate priority is to ensure our programmes respond to the challenges schools and trusts face. Content must be relevant, accredited and it must keep pace with regulatory change. We will continue to build our relationship with CIPFA and we’re also speaking with CIPD and the Chartered Institute of Procurement and Supply (CIPS).

It’s not just about what we’re doing though – members can help too. Practitioner-led research, thought leadership on the school business function – these are key. Involving our community means showcasing best practice, right from the source.

Looking to the future

It is already clear to me that the role of senior leadership teams is shrinking, and the role of MAT executive groups expanding. This goes hand-in-hand with the shift from management to leadership. To reflect this, in time, I would like to see ISBL achieving chartered status. While we must first prove the value of our profession, I don’t see this being problematic. I’ve spoken to countless SBLs who are keen to progress, and many junior practitioners eager to see what leadership tastes like.

I can only speak from personal experience, but will end with some advice to those new to the profession, and those uncertain about all this talk of leadership – you never know what you’re capable of until you try.

For those full of ideas and drive, you can make a real difference in this exhilarating new landscape. How many other vocations allow you to broker relationships between schools, and bring businesses and local community leaders together, all to change children’s lives for the better? What a brilliant career that is.

Being an SBL is exciting, fulfilling and multi-faceted. While secondary schools in particular may face challenges ahead, there is no overlooking the opportunities, which can take you wherever you wish to go.

  • Stephen Morales is chief executive of the Institute of School Business Leadership, formerly the National Association of School Business Management: https://isbl.org.uk/


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