Nickii Messer was one of the first school business managers and is now an experienced consultant who delivers training to SBMs at Anglia Ruskin University (ARU). In an edition of EdExec she shared her journey through the profession with Hayley Zimak and urged colleagues to stand up and speak out to ensure the role gets the respect it deserves; her words still hold true…
The first thing that struck me about Nickii was her undeniable passion for the SBM profession; this is a woman who truly lives and breathes strategy, planning and school leadership. And the second thing? How fantastically busy she is! She had two keynote speeches, a conference and a full-day training session to prepare for – yet didn’t seem rushed in the slightest during our 25-minute phone chat.
Like many SBMs she didn’t start in the education sector; Nickii began her career in marketing before moving to the field of school business management in 1994. Now, 22 years later, she runs her own management, leadership training and development company and is operational leader for Anglia Ruskin University’s business management programme. She joined the National College Leadership Steering Group in 2006 to help focus on the progression and incorporation of SBMs.
“I realised that there were a lot of people taking on this role and, despite coming into schools with previous experience, they weren’t always being recognised or used effectively by headteachers. I thought, if schools could only really accept and understand them, it could be so beneficial for school improvement as a whole.”
A team approach
Nickii knew that if heads appointed the right SBM that person could provide invaluable support. However, as one of only six SBM advocates within the National College, she realised that it would be difficult to effect change alone. “Schools are very cultural; they’re very set in their ways and I think that we, as SBMs, all have to take a role in this. What we need more than anything is for SBMs to role-model effective, high quality leadership.”
Here at Education Executive we often hear that SBMs aren’t always treated as valuable members of the senior team. “If that’s the case – if you’re not getting the recognition, or if you aren’t in the SLT despite being qualified – then I think you should move on,” Nickii advises.
“People don’t always like it when I say this, as we’re very affectionate about our schools, but you have a choice. You’re either committed to your school or you’re committed to your career. I would expect any assistant or deputy head to move around and deepen their knowledge by moving from school to school – people rarely stay in one job. It’s the same for SBMs – you really have to go out to find what you’re looking for.”
Nickii also advocates that SBMs seek high quality professional development. “If you’re going to be in the SLT you have to look at the other members and recognise that they’ve all gone though a lot of CPD. I can’t stress enough the impact that programmes like Level 4 and 5 Diplomas in School Business Management have on preparing you for that professional career move.”
While Level 4 focuses on the operational aspects of being a business manager, the Level 5 Diploma is very much about strategic leadership including monitoring your own personal effectiveness, the leadership of teams and how to be involved with, and lead, school improvement.
“We’re also getting SBMs involved with the National Professional Qualification for Senior Leadership (NPQSL); they’re learning about teaching and learning and how to be a strategic leader within that context,” she continues. “I think SBMs have to understand that schools’ core business is teaching and learning so, the more you can understand it, and get involved in it, the better.”
In addition to seeking professional qualifications and career development opportunities Nickii recommends having strategic conversations with your headteacher. “Let the head see that you have an understanding of leadership; ask if you can go along to meetings and sit in on SLT discussions – put yourself out there.”
Find your niche
Nickii is optimistic when asked about the future of the profession. “I think we’re at a crossroads and it’s exciting. With the erosion of the LAs, and the transition to MATs, we’ll start to see more chief executive officer roles available where you have a head of learning but you might also have a CEO who doesn’t necessarily need to be a qualified teacher. The SBMs who are excited by this are the ones who are really going to seek those opportunities.
“We’ll see a more structured SBM management framework across those MATs,” she continues. “I think a lot of SBMs are deciding to stop being that ‘jack of all trades’ and are starting to focus on more specific areas like HR or finance. Pick an area that you can pursue as your profession within the school; you can become an expert in an individual area and really make that your own.”
She urges SBMs to embrace accountability by showing how their leadership and expertise can best support the school and the headteacher. “Ask for clarification if you don’t know what everyone’s talking about; SBMs tend to feel a little bit second class, and they shouldn’t. Besides,” Nickii continues with a chuckle, “I was at my last school for seven years and for the first six years I kept telling everyone that I was new!
“You have to laugh at yourself sometimes and you have to ask the questions; quite often I found that other people didn’t know the answers either.”
This article first appeared in Education Executive