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Primary Education News
News The rise of the school business manager
As school business managers become increasingly integral to school life, Nick Morrison finds out more about the role and what sort of background you need to get into the job
Few professions have risen so far so fast as that of school business manager. As recently as 15 years ago, the post was virtually unknown in the maintained sector; now it is an integral part of senior leadership teams in many schools, with its importance only likely to grow as schools become more and more autonomous.
For many of its long-standing practitioners, their role has followed a similar trajectory, expanding as the range of areas for which schools are responsible has multiplied until it has become an accepted part of school management.
Sarah Thomas' first rung on the ladder towards becoming a school business manager (SBM) was as maternity cover for the school secretary. She had taken voluntary redundancy from her civil service job and was looking for more family-friendly hours when the head at her children's school mentioned the vacancy.
That was in 1998 and over the following 15 years her job, at Ickworth Park Primary in Bury St Edmunds, gradually broadened in scope. Along the way she has taken the certificate and then the diploma in school business management, offered by the National College, to help with her ever-growing list of responsibilities.
"My training coincided with the school becoming more independent, so eventually I was co-opted onto the leadership team and given the title of school business manager," she says. "Things have just grown as more and more work has devolved to schools."
As well as writing the budget, Thomas is also responsible for premises management, plays a role in recruitment and manages the 25 non-teaching staff. Her background means she is also called upon for everything from fixing computers to helping out if the dinner ladies are one short. "I handle everything that isn't teaching," she says.
Perhaps as a result, a job that she originally thought would be a stopgap has turned into a career. "I was told when I came here that I was really over-qualified but I thought I would do it for a couple of years while the children were little," she says. "I no longer say that."
Even now, the idea of a career in school business management has not yet been embedded. In part, this is apparent in differences in the role from school to school, itself a consequence of its history as a response to the evolving needs of schools.
At Walbottle Campus, an 1,800-pupil secondary school in Newcastle, many of the roles associated with an SBM are undertaken by the director of support, Tracey Gray. After starting her career in banking, Gray moved into business and personnel management for an independent school, before joining Walbottle as head of administration eight years ago.
As with Thomas, her role gradually enlarged. She became head of HR and finance, then was appointed to the newly-created role of director of support two years ago. She is also chair of the trustees of the National Association of School Business Management (NASBM).
Her responsibilities encompass HR, school business management, whole school CPD and leadership and management development, while she also works closely with the finance, IT and admin teams. While working, she has gathered a range of qualifications, including a diploma in human resource management and development and a master's in professional practice. She is also a member of the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development.
All this is a far cry from her original intention. She had planned to follow a secretarial route, only switching course when an opportunity came up to work with the business and personnel manager at her first school. "I thought if I'm doing this, I'm going to have to get some qualifications to give me the expertise I need," she says.
These qualifications are critical in enabling her to deal with the range of situations that come under her purview, from setting the budget to dealing with recruitment, she says. "I couldn't do the job I'm doing without them," she adds.
One of the biggest tasks is making sure staff numbers match student intake. This year, the closure of a nearby secondary school means Walbottle will have a sudden influx of extra students in September. As a result, much of the last two terms were taken up with recruiting an additional 45 members of staff.
The development of the SBM role has been particularly apparent in academies. Completely outside the local authority sphere, academies have taken financial independence to the next level, meaning a corresponding emphasis on the business role.
"My workload has increased significantly since we became an academy," says Jane Taylor. "It is a complete business function now."
Accounts have to meet both Companies House and charity regulations and there are annual five-day audits as well as stringent financial controls.
Taylor, finance manager for the Arthur Terry School in Sutton Coldfield, worked in banking for eight years before becoming a finance officer for Birmingham City Council. She moved into the authority's school finance team, then joined Arthur Terry as a finance officer, with the job gradually morphing into her present role.
Although her financial background has been advantageous, she says it is by no means essential. Perhaps more important has been training she undertook throughout her school career, successively the certificate, diploma and advanced diploma in school business management from the National College.
But with such a relatively new role, it is perhaps not surprising that job descriptions vary widely. "I don't think it is a recognised profession yet, because it is so diverse," says Taylor. "You can have a business manager who does everything and one who does everything apart from HR. You can give someone a label, but it is not necessarily the same label."
It is important for prospective SBMs to find out what each individual role entails, she says, rather than assuming they all encompass similar things. Speaking to people with first-hand experience, through work shadowing or talking to SBM advocates at the National College, is a good way to get an idea of the variety.
It is also useful to find out what training is available and match that up with gaps in an individual's skill set, says Gray. Although it is less likely now that those without relevant experience can come in at a senior level, as the profession becomes more sophisticated, the onward march towards school autonomy also means there will be an increasing number of opportunities.
The variety of roles that come within the SBM remit will mean a steep learning curve for new entrants, adds Thomas. But they can also expect a very different reaction than the one that greeted their predecessors. Thomas recalls that when she was first appointed to the SLT "there were lots of raised eyebrows". But the importance of the role is no longer in doubt. "It has become completely accepted," she says.