A challenging, but rewarding, role

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We speak to Emma Sands, business manager at The Grange Primary School in Scunthorpe, about her progression from the corporate world to a school business manager in a large primary school – and the challenges she has faced along the way

Tell us a little bit about yourself, and the pathway to your current role.

I’m a working mum of two very energetic boys so it’s never a dull moment. My background is predominantly finance and business. I started in 2008 by doing the AAT bookkeeping qualification and I enjoyed it so much that I carried on and did the full qualification. I then achieved full membership status in 2013 and I also worked in private sector finance for several years.

When my eldest was school-age, and my youngest was about two, I decided I wanted to do something different that would maybe give me a bit more time to spend with them. I didn’t know about any school business roles, I just stumbled across it and thought that it would suit. I knew it would be a challenge, but I thought I’d apply for it. At the time I had lots of other mums telling me, ‘Oh no, you’ll not get in at a school – they’re notoriously hard to get into,’ and ‘My friend’s applied for years and she’s never got an interview,’ and I just thought having that qualification the AAT, the accountancy skills matched perfectly to the role, so it didn’t deter me and I did apply for it.

I was successful straightaway in one of the jobs – so I’ve continued in a school business manager role since 2014. I’ve completed both the ILM School Business Manager qualifications Level 5 and 6 and then, last year, I did the Level 7 CIPFA course. This is the second business manager role that I’m in now; it’s a larger school in a really high deprivation area, so it’s quite challenging.

Did you enjoy the Level 7 qualification?

I passed my CIPFA Level 7 Strategic, Financial and Operational Leadership course, which was brilliant. If somebody wanted to understand fully about everything to do with school finance and funding, I would really recommend the course – CIPFA are great. It was a bit tricky because you have complete the Cert FRA accountancy qualification to be able to get the Level 7 certificate. I think that’s the sticking point for most people because, unless they’ve had some previous experience with double-entry bookkeeping, it’s quite hard to get your head around it. It involves quite a bit of extra work, but it was a worthwhile course.

What would you say your input is into the development and improvement of the school?

The majority of my skillset is finance, but I also work closely with the headteacher, governors and other senior leaders to make sure that resources are aligned to the school’s development priorities, and that everything we do is cost-effective, financially viable and, obviously, in the best interests of the children in the end.

As you know, school funding is a very challenging area for lots of school leaders, so the fact that I  have the financial skills allows me to use appropriate strategic planning processes, tools and techniques to ensure we are getting the best out of our resources and our funding; that’s the main thing. I also have a big impact on the front office of the school; one of my main roles is communicating with parents and other stakeholders – basically being the face of the school sometimes.

Share the biggest professional challenge you’ve had to overcome in this role.

It would be the first year that I was in post here. I moved from a federation of two small schools, where I had to do two of everything, and I thought that was difficult! I then saw this job come up and I thought, ‘Oooh! That will be interesting! That will be just one school – it might be more straightforward.’

There were split sites; they’d amalgamated a couple years previously and were still operating from an infant and junior site and had had a new school building built under the priority school building programme. When I came into post it was about six weeks before we were due to move into the new building.  I was responsible for all of the snagging and building stuff and was thrown straight in at the deep-end setting up all these new contracts, maintenance agreements and schedules, which I’d had an element of that before in my other role, but nothing as challenging as that.

I’d come from two very mellow village schools and then into this really busy, manic school, and there was only me and another member of staff at this point because I don’t think anyone had anticipated just how busy it would be with the footfall with the two schools brought together. I ended up doing about 20-plus hours a week at home, on top of my role at school, and I had the boys who were only five and three at that time, I was really-really struggling.

I ended up missing some deadlines and I had to discuss it with the headteacher. At that point I realised if I’d just said something earlier about needing some more staff…I think I was just trying to make a good impression so that they wouldn’t think I couldn’t do the job; instead of just saying ‘We need some help’, I thought I could do it all, and I couldn’t.

On a day-to-day basis, how do you evaluate success in your role?

Achieving my goals, understanding my strengths and weaknesses, and knowing how to use this to my advantage to make me perform better – that’s success for me.

…and how do you motivate your team?

Having a healthy work environment is massively important, so improving my emotional competencies in getting to know and understanding people and processes well. I know what drives and motivates me – but then you need to know what drives and motivates other people.

What would you say are the most important qualities a school leader needs?

The most important one, I think, is to be able to be adaptable and to respond to change appropriately. The educational landscape changes so quickly all the time, and often with little notice, as we know. I think the past year has been a really good example of that. Everybody who works in this school knows that things can always change quite rapidly and you’ve just got to move with it, so I think that’s one really important quality. 

You also need to be resilient. There are so many things that happen all the time, and you’ve got to be able to remain calm in a crisis. I think a school leader needs to be passionate, and to lead with a vision, so that everyone wants to go along with them – and to be a good listener because that’s all you ever need to do.

How does the role differ from what you had expected?

Well, I expected it just to be a straightforward finance/admin role but found out pretty quickly that it was multi-faceted; there are so many different elements to the role. In my job description I’m responsible for HR, buildings, health and safety, finance – and you need to have quite a bit of knowledge about each one to be able to do them properly. You’ll also find that it differs from school-to-school so, while I would be doing all these things here, another business manager might not do the same. It’s a job that requires many hats.

It’s something different every day, working in a school; I’ve even mopped toilets, cleaned up vomit and all-sorts. I don’t think I would ever choose anywhere else to work.

What do you think are the biggest challenges that you’ll be facing going into the next educational year?

Mental health and health and wellbeing for everybody. We’ve noticed a really big impact on our children here; they’re worried about catching up themselves, and they shouldn’t be. But it’s not just about the children; staff have really struggled, parents are struggling and I think there needs to be more of a focus on that rather than the curriculum.

COVID quickfire

  • Biggest challenge: trying to engage parents.
  • Biggest achievement: being able to implement and manage new regulations and requirements quickly.
  • Biggest surprise: I think that the children actually wanted to come to school.
  • Biggest lesson learnt: to keep making sure that we are making advances in technology at school and making sure that we continue to push ourselves.
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