The Changing Role of the School Business Manager

A version of this appeared in Forum Business Media's 'School Business Manager Magazine' in June 2015

The fragmentation of the school system in England in recent years has seen a move away from a position where there was a high degree of uniformity across most Local Authorities to a much more diverse system.  As Sir David Bell outlined in his 'Reflections on Reform' for the Tribal Annual Education Lecture in 2012, the move has been away from the 'old model of a nationally directed, centralised education system, to a new paradigm where there is a de-centralised environment of many small school systems'.  Sir David highlighted that such systems may share some common features, but will also be quite distinctive.

This 'messiness' of school structures directly impacts upon the role of the School Business Managers and therefore recruitment to such posts.  Pioneering schools along with organisations such as NASBM and the National College did much to advance the benefits schools could gain from having a skilled School Business Manager and the Association of School and College Leaders was at the forefront of raising awareness of the status of the role as an essential part of school leadership.

There is everything and nothing in a job title and even within a relatively standardised system the title 'School Business Manager' encompassed colleagues operating with many different levels of responsibility.  Unfortunately some colleagues and schools continue to experience difficulties where job roles and resulting remuneration is aligned to a standardised and potentially limiting job descriptions.  I have encountered the SBM 'being responsible for Human Resources' to mean anything from maintaining the staff database through to the design, development and implementation of HR policy and practice and similar differentials apply in the areas of finance and facilities management.

The breadth and depth of responsibilities can vary from school to school through many factors.  The size of the school is often used to assess salaries but can fail to recognise subtleties such as the number of staff in the school reporting directly to the SBM.  The breadth of the role may or may not involve managing an extensive community use programme. Leadership expectations often vary and at a more operational level whether services such as catering, cleaning, grounds maintenance, payroll and human resources are contracted out or performed in house can change and impact on the SBM role.

A move to academy status has a significant impact on the financial operation of school with a move to a more commercial based accounting system and much closer scrutiny through an annual external and internal audit programme.  The Academies Financial Handbook sets clear expectations for the role of Chief Finance Officer who must be appointed to lead on financial matters and play both a technical and leadership role.  Unfortunately I have encountered situations where the Trust has failed to recognise this in the recruitment of SBM's and/or allocation of duties to existing post holders with resulting issues of capacity or capability.  It is therefore important that the Trust considers the qualifications and experience needed to perform this financial part of the role.  I would argue similar considerations should also apply to the skills and qualifications needed for aspects such as human resources, facilities management and health and safety.

Some larger schools had already started to fragment the SBM role prior to the emergence of multi academy trusts with for example the appointment of an in house Human Resources Officer to work alongside a Finance and Operations Director.  Such fragmentation is becoming even more commonplace with the development of multi academy trusts.  Whilst similar considerations of size and scope apply in MAT's the geographical proximity of schools within the MAT and levels of both financial and non-financial delegation from the centre to individual schools add other dimensions.

When supporting schools in the recruitment of School Business Managers it is therefore even more important than ever to think school business management rather than school business manager.  The effective business management may still be centred around a single SBM role but is likely to include some reliance on good quality outsourced services (e.g. legal support) and the various combinations of in house and outsourcing mentioned earlier.  Although I still see very task orientated job descriptions I encourage schools and trusts to capture a wider remit – so for example 'ensuring there is an effective payroll service' rather than 'providing payroll information to the payroll provider'.

There might be middle managers working to a senior business leader/manager or a flatter structure whereby a Finance Manager, HR Manager and Facilities Manager report separately to the most senior professional in the organisation.  When reviewing the role with an individual Headteacher I normally encourage the Head to consider how many direct reportees they really want! This does however assume that the Headteacher/CEO/Executive Head (and again there is much and nothing in the title) line manages the leader of the business management function.  We are seeing more models emerging where there may be separate accountability to the Board of Directors on educational and business management matters.

After reviewing and agreeing the scope of the role(s) where are the candidates likely to come from?  Some schools are specifying the National College SBM qualifications as either desirable or essential.  I see huge variation in the quality of candidates with similar qualifications and encourage schools and trusts to cast a wider net to include potential candidates form commercial and charitable sectors alongside those with school experience.  It is often the leadership qualities that distinguish between candidates.   A focus on what a candidate might look like one year into post when an external appointment will have gained school experience can help.

For the future I don't envisage anything but further fragmentation and school led groupings.  I do however feel the business management remit will expand in more schools and trusts to include ensuring there is effective governance – we are seeing this already in some schools and trusts and will further develop into stronger risk management.  I am delighted that Stephen Morales and NASBM are leading the review and development of professional standards and importantly involving ASCL and NAHT in this.   The standards must support both the single SBM role and a more modularised model for the fragmented roles.