James Toop on the pace, scale and nature of change in school leadership

James Toop, CEO at Ambition School Leadership, on the pace, scale and nature of change in school leadership

As the pace of change in education continues to accelerate what new opportunities are open to SBMs? James Toop, CEO at Ambition School Leadership – formerly the Future Leaders Trust and Teaching Leaders – discusses the various career paths that will mark the road ahead

One of the key issues I see facing modern school leadership is the pace, scale and nature of change. One positive result of change is the growth of opportunities for school business managers (SBMs) to make an impact on children’s life chances and the opening up of clear career pathways that have the potential to place them in a position to lead a multi-academy trust (MAT).

The nature of school leadership

Leadership structures and responsibilities across MATs and their schools can look very different

The nature of school leadership is evolving due to academisation, new school groupings and the emerging role of the executive head. Leadership is becoming more distributed and the traditional, standalone head may soon be a thing of the past. The expansion of MATs – there are currently over 1,000 trusts – has seen new levels of leadership emerging – chief executive officers (CEO), chief operating officers (COO), executive heads and MAT finance directors. This, in turn, has altered the leadership structures, roles and responsibilities within schools.

The growth of regional structures within MATs….has also provided more opportunities for SBMs to take a step up

In addition, the wide variety in the size and make-up of trusts, and sizeable regional sub-groupings in the larger ones, means that leadership structures and responsibilities across MATs and their schools can look very different. Our research last year showed that there are also big differences in how executive headteachers – of which there may be 3,200 by 2022 – fit into leadership structures.

What does this mean for school business managers?

Effective financial management will not always stop this, but it will increase heads’ options when they have to make a hard choice

With change comes opportunity and the aforementioned developments are creating a range of new leadership opportunities for SBMs. The re-distribution of leadership responsibility means that SBMs are now often supporting headteachers in the financial and operational side of the school. As money per pupil falls in many schools, and legislation and safeguarding become more complex, there is increasing pressure on schools to become more efficient. This is where a good SBM comes into their own and can play a key role in securing improved outcomes for children.

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We hear stories of some subjects being removed from the curriculum because schools cannot afford to employ the necessary staff. Effective financial management will not always stop this, but it will increase heads’ options when they have to make a hard choice. An effective SBM can also support and upskill their head on finance and operations to enable this impact to be even greater.

Career paths for school business managers are also evolving

Career paths for school business managers are also evolving; based on Ambition School Leadership’s work with MATs we have found that a significant number of finance directors are former SBMs, especially where the MATs are still relatively small – though, on occasion, where they are fairly sizeable as well. The growth of regional structures within MATs, often with their own regional finance director, has also provided more opportunities for SBMs to take a step up.

A range of career opportunities

SBMs may even see opportunities to move into system leadership themselves. While we believe those with direct responsibility for teaching and learning must have teaching experience, we also believe those who aspire to executive leader positions, including SBMs, will have a variety of backgrounds.

The increase in numbers of MATs has created a range of career opportunities for SBMs that have not previously existed– from SBM to finance director, to chief operating officer at a MAT, to CEO – bringing a different professional background into the sector. The most important thing is a passion to improve outcomes for children and to develop yourself and your colleagues. We need to encourage more people who want to make a bigger impact in education to explore relevant options and find out how they can step up to change lives.

About the author: James Toop is CEO at Ambition School Leadership, a charity building a network of exceptional school leaders at all levels to transform the lives of the children who need it most. Click here to find out Executive Educators, their programme for current and aspiring chief executives of multi-academy trusts.

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