The evolving role of SBMs

Written by: Christopher Woolfrey | Published:

Data suggests that school business managers are taking on new and wider responsibilities. Christopher Woolfrey takes a closer look.

With responsibility for budgets, procurement, human resources, site management, office administration and resource allocation, school business managers (SBMs) are as important in keeping schools running as other senior leaders are in keeping teaching and learning on track.

When we think of the role, we typically think of the tasks I have just listed, but analysis by The Key of how SBMs use our website suggests they are moving into new areas.

Comparing article views by SBMs from September to October 2013 with the same period in 2012, we see that they were 61 per cent more likely in 2013 to look at information on engaging parents and carers. The data also shows that SBMs are increasingly interested in articles on working with the governing body (up by 36 per cent), and on pupil health and wellbeing (up by 30 per cent). And their interest in articles related to managing school staff, professional development and performance management has also grown.

The question that this raises, of course, is the extent to which SBMs are gaining more responsibility within schools. Our data suggests that they are, particularly in secondary schools. Articles on “managing school staff” are significantly more popular for secondary SBMs than for primary SBMs, perhaps suggesting that, in larger schools, SBMs are managing a growing team.

We have also found that SBMs in secondary schools have become less interested in topics once considered central to their role: in autumn 2013, they were 32 per cent less likely to look at examples of policies and documents, 28 per cent less likely to look at articles on health and safety, and four per cent less likely to view articles on financial management.

We asked two of The Key’s associate education experts whether the role now involves a wider range of responsibilities. Jaimini Lakhani, who has worked in both primary and secondary schools as an SBM, said that a large part of her work in her current role is making links with parents and the local community.

She is responsible for contacting parents who may send children to the school, and has developed links with the local residents’ association, offering them free space to hold meetings on the school site.

In a previous role, she was responsible for improving staff wellbeing – something that, in her view, is increasingly seen as a responsibility of SBMs.

For Jaimini, it is vital that an SBM with a wider remit feels supported in building an effective team of middle managers. In secondary schools, the scope and volume of work means that an SBM has to be able to delegate with confidence. To do this, an SBM needs the full support of the headteacher and the senior leadership team. It is equally important that the SBM has a level of seniority appropriate to those tasks, and to managing other staff effectively.

Nazli Hussein, who also has both primary and secondary experience, agrees that the role is expanding. Alongside the traditional tasks associated with the role, she has used her skills to project-manage the opening of a number of free schools.

Like Jaimini, she thinks that effective management and consistent communication are vital for an SBM to take on greater responsibilities. According to Nazli: “It’s a hindrance not to have SBMs on the senior leadership team, as every decision they make has an impact on resources – whether physical, financial or staff-related. It’s the SBM’s role to be the lynchpin, identifying and gathering information, and translating it into school development and financial plans.”

In September, The Key surveyed SBMs on several topics, including their relationship with other senior leaders. We found that, generally, SBMs are being given the level of seniority that Jaimini and Nazli say is so important: 86 per cent of secondary school respondents said that they are part of their school’s top team, and the same percentage said that other senior leaders are supportive of them being there.

Interestingly, 94 per cent of the secondary SBMs who responded said that an SBM cannot be effective without being part of the senior leadership team. Their comments reinforced this. One SBM said that he is a key player on his school’s leadership team, with other staff valuing his ability to provide a different perspective on matters. Another said that she is seen as being on the same level as the deputy headteacher.

So, SBMs seem to be increasingly viewed as an authority in schools – and are aware of their value. This leads us to wonder whether we will start to see SBMs moving to headship. Their broad skillset, level of seniority and experience of various aspects of school life would certainly make them suitable. But would SBMs consider making that move?

Our survey suggests most would not. Just eight per cent felt that they would become a headteacher, while 18 per cent said that they would consider the move, but do not have the skills. More than half said that for precisely this reason, they would not like to take on the top job. We found that secondary school SBMs were also worried about a lack support from others: 52 per cent felt that other staff would not support the move, and 24 per cent said that other staff would be “very unsupportive.”

While the remit of the SBM is expanding, school leaders are telling us that, at least for now, headship might be a step too far. As one survey respondent put it: “I have no desire to be a headteacher. I would prefer the role of SBM to be better recognised, on a par with the headteacher.”

Perhaps that’s the next step in the evolution of school business managers.

  • Christopher Woolfrey is sector insight analyst at The Key, a question-answering service used by more than 7,000 schools.


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