Take a moment to go on a personal exploration of the SBM role – from early beginnings to current demands, the pace of change, the benefits of strategic collaboration and the importance of initiatives like the SBM Roundtable (#SBMRT17) hosted in May – with Emma Gray, business manager at Marling School and finance director of the Cotswold Beacon Academy Trust
In issue eleven of Education Executive, March 2006, I was interviewed in a ‘Best Practice’ feature looking at what was then the fairly new concept of the ‘school business manager’. Such a lot has changed since that article, not least my name, the school I work in and the responsibilities of the role! I thought it might be interesting to look back over that time and consider the many changes that have taken place and the effect they have had on education in this country.
A personal journey of continuous development
It’s as far back as 2001 that Estelle Morris pledged to train 1,000 bursars by 2006 to manage the growing autonomy over finances which headteachers were experiencing. SBMs, as we know them today, were still some way off and I fully appreciate that I was only one of the first with the new title because, at the time of my appointment in 2002, Farmor’s School, in rural Gloucestershire, had chosen to apply for a specialism in Business and Enterprise.
To say it was a vertical learning curve is something of an understatement. Having grown up in the town and attended the school for seven years as a student, I was well placed to approach the community for the required contribution to achieve specialist status of £50,000, but there was so much else that came with the role.
In my first year I tackled finance, second personnel and in the third I added premises, health and safety and catering. By then the school had achieved its status so I had added building and project management as well as my DSBM and strategic leadership. Looking back, I believe I was lucky to be in it from the beginning and be able to take it on one step at a time!
New structures: a changing education landscape
At the same time, the role of education secretary, under various guises, was swapped around a number of Labour MPs as the cross-party approved political process to convert schools into academies gained momentum. By the Academies Act of 2010 there were already 203 sponsored academies in England and it was clear that the desire to encourage all schools, initially with significant financial incentives, to embrace the new status was having an effect.
In January 2011 I was appointed as business manager at Marling School, a boys’ grammar school in Gloucestershire and by August we had converted to academy status – a status that brought with it more responsibility for reporting, compliance and control. For a while my role seemed very finance-heavy; I no longer had the county support I had been used to; the world became competitive, business-orientated and risk averse.
Looking beyond the ringed fence of education
I was grateful to have been advised by my previous head to look outside education for CPD and was nearing the end of my MBA qualification. Without the business strategy view that the course had given me, I wonder if I might have found those early years of being an academy SBM overwhelming. I also wonder how many schools have been reluctant to realise the benefits of conversion due to the workload involved and skills needed.
In my outstanding grammar school the additional challenge was to secure capital funding because lessons were, quite literally, being delivered in a building that had started life as a World War I wooden field hospital which had been ‘temporarily’ moved onto the school site in 1922, following the age rise in compulsory secondary education.
It wasn’t until application to the Academies Capital Maintenance Fund was made possible that £3.7m funding was secured to demolish and rebuild. I still find it shocking that education in an – albeit large – shed was considered acceptable in 2010.
Rapid revolutions: change waits for no one
The pace of change has not slowed. In 2016 Marling School, which had achieved teaching school status in 2015 and linked with numerous local secondary and primary schools to focus on local teacher recruitment and CPD, was converted into a MAT, the Cotswold Beacon Academy Trust, and joined with a local primary school. These were two confident schools seeking to work together to collaborate with, and support, other local schools in achieving the very best in available resources in order to impact the frontline educational experience.
It is clear to me that, today, collaboration is the key word for survival. Schools must no longer sit in isolation with our own specialisms and directions of travel; we must work together to counter the realities of reduced revenue funding, difficulties in recruitment and retention of skills, limited capital funding and the deterioration of our building stock, growing numbers of students, rising uncontrollable costs and parental demand for choice.
I don’t believe that we can do all that on our own and I think we’ll look back on this time as an ‘industrial revolution’ style change in the education landscape as schools forge partnerships in MATs, teaching schools, shared services – or even just a desire to work together to achieve the best outcomes for students.
Today: Strategic collaboration
So, what does the SBM look like today? In May I attended a roundtable of SBMs to discuss government election manifestos and the changing education landscape. We agreed that there now seem to be two types of SBM:
There are the strategic, collaborative SBMs – the ones who anticipate the future and who have been, or are being, trained to think about the opportunities outside their own school perimeters. If they have a need for a resource their first question is, ‘Which local SBMs can I work with to achieve this to our mutual benefit?’ and, ‘Is there another school near me, with excellent practice, which might let me buy the service from them?’ They are considering the MAT model and advising their SLT on the most effective way forward for their school. They are having a direct and tangible impact on teaching and learning with their positive support and solution-oriented approach.
The alternative SBMs, it was decided, are the ones we need to work with more closely to educate and inform so that they are prepared for the future.
I think if Education Executive had been able to tell me what my job would look like in ten years’ time I probably wouldn’t have believed them. By sheer necessity I’ve had to evolve quickly in order to keep up. I’ve had to get training far beyond that which I ever thought myself capable. I’ve had to push for recognition that the role does impact teaching and learning.
I’ve had to deal with a lot of numbers. I’ve had to spend my working life finding solutions and predicting the future. I’ve learned that a progressive headteacher is a blessing, not a curse, and I have found that the best working friendships can be miles away geographically but can actually provide the most inspiration for growth.